Friday, January 13, 2006

A theory for Fundamentalness

Today I had a new theory while thinking about some problems: that behind every problem, there are some fundamental issues/aspects that will be relevant to a wide number of other problems/issues.

The reason I thought of this idea, was that I've been thinking and trying to understand: why some research are considered as more important / influential than others?

Of course, there are some common-sense answers to this question, such as: the work is the first of its kind (field-setter); the result is applicable to a wide range of problems; it solves some long-standing, difficult issues; it provides a simple theory to complex phenomena that either explain the mechanism well, or allow us to make better predications, etc.

There's also the joke that, the importance of a scientific work is judged by whether your name is spelled with lower case letters as opposed to upper cases. For example, newton, joule, watts, etc. (they're the units for force, energy, and electricity).

Today, there are more metrics/tools for accessing the degree of influence/importance of one's research work, and one such tool is the number of citations to one's work, indicated by metrics such as the Science Citation Index (SCI), Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), and the recently launched Google Scholar.

But upon closer examinations, one may find that this subject can be highly controversial and there are no simple or straightforward answers.

For one, while citation may indicate the interests or relevance of a work in the past few years or decades (since such data can be tracked by computers and databases). It will not indicate nor access the importance of a work in the coming years or decades, let alone the relevance of a work after a hundred years (the story of Mendel's chromosome theory should serve us well).

Citations might also indicate different aspects of importance, for example, SCI only indexes works that are of journal-quality papers, while Google Scholar attempts to find all references of a work available on the Internet. A famous P2P research work called Chord scores 35 citations in the 2004 SCI (which is relatively high, but works in other scientific fields have citation numbers run in the hundreds), yet its Google Scholar search result is very impressive (more than 2,500 citations, which is much higher than most scientific works). The difference is caused by the nature of computer science where most works are published in conferences/workshops as opposed to journals, and also that Google Scholar indexes not only papers published, but also that of master and PhD thesis, or technical reports. Plus the fact that computer science works have a higher likelihood of being available online and thus indexed by Google.

There's also the question of the definition of importance/relevance. While some importance are associated with fame (as in Einstein), other influential work are less well known (for example, the inventor/discoverer of laser is probably not very well-known by the public).

But I suspect that ultimately, importance, relevance, or influence is measured by how many people, or how long a period, does a work affect (of course, for people, one can also consider just the research people, or the population at large). In this sense, all the previously mentioned forms of importance / influence are broadly included (citations, fame, or range of applications)

If we can accept this loose definition for now, then the next question (at least for research people) becomes: how does one do important / relevant works?

Turing Award winner Richard Hamming had given some of his thoughts in a 1986 Bell Lab seminar "You and Your Research." But if importance is judged by how widely it is applicable to (in terms of people, duration, or tasks), then it will not be surprising to see that, in many, perhaps even all, daily problems or situations we face, there are certain aspects which a n existing important work is applicable or is in fact already applied.

Almost all of our modern home appliances, which help us to solve our daily problems, are the results of accumulations of research works and engineering efforts in the past. When we turn on the computer and browse the Internet, the underlying messages, protocols, encryptions, are all influential works done in the past, of which we're currently been influenced.

I therefore find it possible that, underlying perhaps all daily problems you face, there are some aspects or potentials that a solution (if it is not yet found) can in fact be quite influential and applicable to other problems as well.

We all know the story of Newton discovering the laws of gravity after an apple hit his head, or perhaps the story of the accidental discovery of penicillin.

Whether one actually pays attention to perhaps even the seemingly mundane/trivial problems or phenomena during a day and seeks to find some general solutions for it, is however, another issue.

No comments: