“A profound and possibly psychotic break with reality”

June 9, 2015

Re-reading an email that Matt sent me back in January, I see this:

One quick point about [an interesting sauropod specimen]. I can envision writing that up as a short descriptive paper, basically to say, “Hey, look at this weird thing we found! Morrison sauropod diversity is still underestimated!” But I honestly doubt that we’ll ever get to it — we have literally years of other, more pressing work in front of us. So maybe we should just do an SV-POW! post about the weirdness of [that specimen], so that the World Will Know.

Although as soon as I write that, I think, “Screw that, I’m going to wait until I’m not busy* and then just take a single week* and rock out a wiper* on it.”

I realize that this way of thinking represents a profound and possibly psychotic break with reality. *Thrice! But it still creeps up on me.

(For anyone not familiar with the the “wiper”, it refers to a short paper of only one or two pages. The etymology is left as an exercise to the reader.)

It’s just amazing how we keep on and on falling for this delusion that we can get a paper out quickly, even when we know perfectly well, going into the project, that it’s not going to work out that way. To pick a recent example, my paper on quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture was intended to be literally one page, an addendum to the earlier paper on cartilage: title, one paragraph of intro, diagram, equation, single reference, DONE! Instead, it landed up being 11 pages long with five illustrations and two tables.

I think it’s a reasonable approximation to say that any given project will require about an order of magnitude more work than we expect at the outset.

Even as I write this, the top of my palaeo-work priority list is a paper that I’m working on with Matt and two other colleagues, which he kicked off on 6 May, writing:

I really, really want to kill this off absolutely ASAP. Like, seriously, within a week or two. Is that cool? Is that doable?

To which I idiotically replied:


A month and a bit later, the answers to Matt’s questions are clear. Yes, it’s cool; and no, it’s not doable.

The thing is, I think that’s … kind of OK. The upshot is that we end up writing reasonably substantial papers, which is after all what we’re meant to be trying to do. If the reasonably substantial papers that end up getting written aren’t necessarily the ones we thought they were going to be, well, that’s not a problem. After all, as I’ve noted before, my entire Ph.D dissertation was composed of side-projects, and I never got around to doing the main project. That’s fine.

In 2011, Matt’s tutorial on how to find problems to work on discussed in detail how projects grow and mutate and anastamose. I’m giving up on thinking that this is a bad thing, abandoning the idea that I ought to be in control of my own research program. I’m just going to keep chasing whatever rabbits look good to me at the time, and see what happens.



5 Responses to ““A profound and possibly psychotic break with reality””

  1. Andrew Stuck Says:

    Argh! So no mystery sauropod today?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    No — just a mystery about a sauropod :-)

  3. LeeB Says:

    And what happened to the paper on the Archbishop?
    Or is that going to take decades to do?


  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    That is a perfectly legitimate question. The answer is that the Archbishop paper is very near the top of my priority list.

  5. Gloria Says:

    Your synthesys about how we plan our publishing schedule is really superb!

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