Five conversations

April 22, 2014

2007-01-07 Big Bend 142 small

5. Brian Kraatz, 2004

In the spring of 2004, I was killing time over in Tony Barnosky’s lab at Berekeley, talking to Brian Kraatz about something–mammals, probably. Brian told me that I should consider going to the International Congress of Zoology that was happening in Beijing that fall. He’d actually told me about it several times, but I kept forgetting about it. It seemed remote from my concerns. Finally, though, the day before the abstracts were due, I thought, “Why not?” I could get travel money from the department and it would get me over there to see a lot of Asian dinosaurs in person.

I was also intrigued because presenters could submit either abstracts or short papers, and I had an idea for a short paper. I had been thinking a lot about how pneumaticity got started in dinosaurs and how much we could infer about that, so that evening I stayed up until about 3 AM banging out what would become Wedel (2006), pretty much as it was published, except for the figure, which was added later.

That got me to Beijing, where I spent a lot of time talking with Paul Barrett, who saw my talk and later invited me to contribute a talk to an SVP symposium on prosauropods, which grew into Wedel (2007) and became a chapter of my dissertation. And that got me an invite from Adam Yates and Matt Bonnan to join them in writing up the first really solid evidence of pneumaticity in prosauropods (Yates et al. 2012).

RESET

When I wandered over to the Barnosky lab to kill time that day,  Brian wasn’t in. Instead I got to talking with Alan Shabel about food webs in East African riparian ecosystems. The habitats and faunas he was talking about put me in mind of the Morrison Formation of the American West. I wondered if the quantitative ecological analysis that Alan was working on would yield any insights into how Late Jurassic ecosystems worked. And that fired a few neutrons at the Van Valen papers I’d been reading for Kevin Padian’s paleobiology seminar, and precipitated a chain reaction. The paper that came out of that, “Sauropod dinosaurs as Van Valen’s energy maximizers”, was published in Paleobiology in 2007. That’s how I got into quantifying energy flow through dinosaur-dominated ecosystems.

I was presenting some of that work at an ecology conference in 2008 when I got invited to join a team of biologists going to the Galapagos. I was particularly interested in the role of extant dinosaurs (i.e., birds) in ecosystems dominated by bradymetabolic reptiles. Some of the data from that trip and one subsequent  expedition went into my 2013 paper on the rise of dinosaurs during the Triassic. But most importantly, it got me working in the Galapagos, which I had wanted to do ever since I was a kid.

Oakland Zoo Tortoise - resting

4. Mike Taylor, 2000

My first paper came out in the first issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2000. It was the one in which Rich Cifelli and Kent Sanders and I designated OMNH 53062, a string of four sauropod vertebrae from southeast Oklahoma, as the type specimen of a new dinosaur, Sauroposeidon proteles. I had been collecting business cards and mailing addresses from people at SVP since 1997, and I had a list of about 100 people that I thought would appreciate a reprint of the paper. So when the reprints arrived from the publisher, I printed out a bunch of form letters, made an assembly line of reprints, letters, and envelopes on the big table in the OMNH vert paleo library, and killed an afternoon getting everything assembled and ready to ship out.

Also about this time I received a polite email from some English guy named Mike Taylor, asking for a reprint. I wrote back and said that I’d be happy to send him one. I don’t know what he wrote back next, but it was sufficiently interesting that it kicked off a conversation that has now been going on for 14  years. When Vicki and I went to England on spring break in 2004, we stayed with Mike and Fiona in London. I went back over for SVPCA in London in 2005, and after 2009, I started going to SVPCA every year instead of SVP. That’s how I got to know Dave Hone. I got acquainted with Darren separately–we were sending each other reprints in 2001, I think, and talking sporadically about brachiosaurs. I think that Mike and Darren also met separately, and possibly if I hadn’t been around, they still would have ended up working together. But my papers with Mike–which account for seven of the nine I’ve published since my dissertation–wouldn’t have happened, or would have come out very differently. And you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Darren & Mike with Dippy

RESET

I first met Mike Taylor at the SVP meeting in Bristol in 2009. He had done that paper on that weird vertebra with Darren a couple of years before. We got together over a few pints and discovered that we had a lot of interests in common–Star Wars, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis–but c’mon, who can’t you say that about in this geek-infested business? He’s a nice guy, and we’re friends, but we’re not what you’d call close.

I spent most of my time at that meeting catching up with Matt Bonnan. We’d been friends since the late 90s, and we’d written the paper on the probable brachiosaurid metacarpal in 2004, but we hadn’t collaborated much. Well, we were both out of grad school and into stable jobs, and we really put our heads together that meeting. Two streams of papers came out of that: first, the sauropod biomechanics papers, which merged his limb development stuff with my pneumaticity stuff, and secondly, all of our work on quantifying serial variation using geometric morphometrics.

Although the first set of papers has attracted more attention–certainly more media attention–it’s the second set that give me more satisfaction. I’ve always been interested in serial homology, I just didn’t have a novel approach. But with Matt’s help I was able to combine morphometrics and phylogenetics to produce developmental phylogenies of serially repeated structures. That by itself is pretty cool, but when you bring it into the extant realm you can put the gene expression patterns right into the analysis. The stuff we’re doing with axial development in chickens right now–man, I don’t know if I’ll ever find the time to write another paper about extinct dinosaurs, when there’s so much fun to be had with the living ones.

Matt with chicken

3. Brooks Britt, 1997

In the summer of 1997, I was on a multi-thousand-mile quest to determine whether OMNH 53062 was a new dinosaur, or just a big example of something already known. Vicki and I had been to D.C. that spring, partly as our first vacation as a married couple, and partly so that I could see the Astrodon/Pleurocoelus material at the Smithsonian. That summer, I mapped out an epic tour of museums in the West. With our friend Tyson Davis, Vicki and I went to Dinosaur National Monument, the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake, the BYU Earth Sciences Museum in Provo, and the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

The main reason we went to Grand Junction was because at the time, the MWC had some of the BYU Brachiosaurus material from Dry Mesa Quarry on exhibit. Rich Cifelli and I weren’t sure what OMNH 53062 was yet, but we thought it looked an awful lot like Brachiosaurus. Brooks Britt was the curator there at the time, and he took us down to the basement and showed us some of the sauropod material from the Lower Cretaceous Dalton Wells Quarry. Brooks was particularly excited to show us the pneumatic features in the vertebrae. I told him about the big vertebrae from Oklahoma that I was working on, and he said, “You should get those vertebrae CT scanned, to get a look at the pneumatic spaces inside.” I smiled and nodded and thought to myself, “Dude, you are completely crazy. I am an undergrad on an independent study. No way do I have the juice to get giant dinosaur bones CT scanned.” But I didn’t forget about what he’d said. When we got back to Oklahoma, I mentioned it to Rich–and then I forgot about it.

Ridem dino

Happily for me, Rich did not forget about it. A few months later, he was at a university function with the director of OU’s University Hospital, and he mentioned the idea of CT scanning the dinosaur bones. The hospital director was all for it–the CT machines frequently had down time on Saturdays, and the hospital would trade time on the machines for publicity when we published our results. That December, I was in Rich’s office for one of our weekly meetings when he said, “Hey, are you still interested in CT scanning the vertebrae? Because if you want to, we can make it happen.” I don’t remember what I said, but I assume it was some variant of “Hell yeah!”

We took the first jacket up to the hospital in January, 1998. We got decent results. The vertebrae were so big and dense that the scans were plagued by beam-hardening artifacts, but we could see that internal structure was honeycombed by dozens or hundreds of thin-walled cavities. The problem was, we had no idea what that meant–a few physical cross-sections of sauropod vertebrae had been published over the years, most notably by Heber Longman in 1933 and Werner Janensch in 1947–but to my knowledge no CT scans of sauropod vertebrae had ever been published, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of published CT scans of fossils of any kind. Brooks had a bunch in his 1993 dissertation, but that was unpublished, and I wouldn’t get a copy for several more months. So we had no baseline.

Utah 2008 05 Kent in reading room

But we did have Kent Sanders, a radiologist at the hospital who was hot on this stuff and helped us read the films. And we had a museum full of dinosaur bones and access to a CT scanner on the weekends. So that’s how I spent most of the Saturdays in 1998–drive to the museum, fill the trunk of the car with dinosaur bones, drive up to Oklahoma City and spend the day scanning with Kent. I wasn’t supposed to do my MS thesis on pneumaticity, but when the primary project I had been working on didn’t look like it was going to pan out, I realized that I had enough CT scans of sauropod vertebrae that with a little selective hole-filling I could describe the evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods. So that became my Master’s thesis.

RESET

That conversation with Brooks Britt in the summer of 1997 was a turning point for me. Until then I’d been interested in OMNH 53062 for what it could tell us about the animal that it had once been part of. But when Brooks started telling me about the taphonomy of the Dalton Wells Quarry, I realized that the Oklahoma vertebrae were telling another story, too: the story of what had happened to that animal. So that’s the angle we played up in the paper–how did these vertebrae get separated from the rest of the critter? Mesozoic murder mystery!

Then the next summer I was out with Rich’s crew in Montana, working in the Cloverly Formation. I actually spent most of my time with Des Maxwell and his group at the Wolf Creek quarry, which was a sauropod bonebed. I did a poster on that quarry for SVP in 2000, and I wrote my MS thesis on the taphonomy of the quarry.

While all of this was going on, I was spending more and more time talking with Brooks Britt. He had done his dissertation on pneumaticity in fossil archosaurs, but he had all kinds of interesting things going on related to taphonomy, including modification of dinosaur bones by termities, and evidence of fungal hyphae in dinosaur bones. Brooks had done his Bachelor’s and Master’s work at BYU before going to Calgary for his dissertation. He encouraged me to think about going to BYU for my PhD work. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made–I freaking love Utah, and the chance to go live and work there was too good to pass up. I started out as one of Ken Stadtman’s grad students, but when Brooks got the job at BYU in 2002, he agreed to come on as my co-advisor. I’m mainly interested in what you can infer about terrestrial ecosystems from tracks left on bones, so that’s what I did my dissertation on. Most of the chapters were on sauropods, naturally, but I did have that one project looking at invertebrates, fungi, and microbes–or their traces–in faunal bone I collected from Capitol Reef National Forest in the summer of 2005. Now that was a fun project.

While I was working at BYU, Vicki got her PhD in anthropology from the University of Utah. Both of us had field sites in southern Utah, and we really fell in love with that part of the state. After we finished our degrees we moved to St. George, which is just gorgeous. Vicki coordinates the excavation and repatriation of Native American remains and artifacts from Utah federal lands, and I teach geology at Dixie State University. When I’m not digging, teaching, or hiking, I blog about sauropod taphonomy. My friends tease me because it’s such a geeky niche thing, but it makes me happy.

Matt in the field

2. Rich Cifelli, 1996

You know how sometimes you end up working on something just because it’s there? That’s how I started working on sauropods.

Immediately after I left Trish Schwagmeyer’s office, I marched down to the museum, barged into Rich’s office, threw myself in a chair, and asked him if he’d sponsor me on an independent study. He said that he’d be delighted to–what did I want to work on? Dinosaurs, I said, dinosaurs! “Well, we have these big sauropod vertebrae from southeastern Oklahoma that need to be identified.” We went and had a look. It wasn’t my dream project–I was more interested in big theropods and ceratopsians–but I said I’d take the job. There was a little paperwork to fill out. We conceived a one-semester project, to be completed in the fall of 1996, to identify the specimen, OMNH 53062, to the family level. Rich loaned me some of his sauropod papers to photocopy so that I could get up to speed on the anatomy. I spent the fall of 1996 grokking sauropod vertebral morphology and trying to figure out what this thing was.

RESET

Immediately after I left Trish Schwagmeyer’s office, I marched down to the museum, barged into Rich’s office, threw myself in a chair, and asked him if he’d sponsor me on an independent study. He said that he’d be delighted to–what did I want to work on? Dinosaurs, I said, dinosaurs–especially big theropods or ceratopsians! “Well, we have these ceratopsian odds and ends that Stovall collected back in the 30s and 40s. They’ve been catalogued all this time as Pentaceratops and Triceratops, but someone should probably check on those IDs.” Wow, my dream project–of course I pounced on it! There was a little paperwork to fill out. We conceived a one-semester project, to be completed in the fall of 1996, to identify the specimens to the genus level. Rich loaned me some of his ceratopsian papers to photocopy so that I could get up to speed on the anatomy. I spent the fall of 1996 grokking ceratopsian cranial morphology and trying to figure out what those things were.

Well, it turns out that they were Pentaceratops and Triceratops after all. So no big news, but I did learn a lot on that project: how to photograph and measure fossils, how to read scientific papers. Mostly it just got me back in the museum.

You know how sometimes you end up working on something just because it’s there? That’s how I started working on Tenontosaurus. I’ll confess, at first I didn’t have any deep, abiding love for “Tonto”. I scorned it as the world’s most boring dinosaur–no horns, spikes, frills, claws, or sails, basically just a scaly cow with a longer tail. But, man, these things were pouring out of the Antlers Formation like water out of a tap. We had adults, subadults, big juveniles, little  juveniles, even a few bones from individuals so small they must have been yearlings. I started working on them in my spare time, and got a little project going on the post-hatching ontogeny of Tenontosaurus. When I graduated with my BS in the fall of 1997, it just made sense to stick around and keep working on Tenontosaurus for my MS.

Topps - da baby eating sticker

Naturally I was presenting this stuff at SVP every fall, and that’s where I met Jack Horner. He thought my ontogenetic work on Tenontosaurus would be good preparation for tackling hadrosaur ontogeny and diversity. So I went to MSU for my PhD work. After I finished I got the job I have now, teaching geology in Missouri. Even when I was living in Montana, I’d still get into the OMNH collections for  a day or two of research whenever I was back in Oklahoma. Now that I’m just five hours away, I’m back at OMNH all the time. There’s just so much to work on–Eolambia, the small ornithopod material from the Cloverly Formation, and especially the teeth. The OMNH has hundreds of these little ornithopod teeth from the microsites in the Cedar Mountain Formation, the Cloverly Formation, and the Antlers Formation. Nobody wants to work on them, except me. While I was working on Tenontosaurus I had to come up with some size-independent characters that I could use to determine the ontogenetic age of ornithopods based on their teeth. Once I had those, all of those teeth catalogued as “Ornithopoda indet.” became a goldmine.

I certainly never saw myself becoming “the ornithopod tooth guy”–what an oddly specific thing to be an expert on! But to me they are beautiful, intricate, and endlessly fascinating. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll take all of my best photographs and start a Tumblr.

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1. Trish Schwagmeyer, 1996

Trish: “You’re blowing it. You want to do research, but no-one is going to trust you with a project if you can’t take care of the basic stuff like keeping your grades up.”

Me: [face-burning, fully convicted silence]

Trish: “You are capable of much more than this. I know that these grades are not reflective of your best work. This is your chance to prepare yourself for the career you want. You owe it to yourself to do better than this.”

Me: [sucking it up] “I understand. And I’ll do better. Other than getting my grades up, what else can I do to make myself attractive to graduate programs?”

Trish: “Find a professor that you like and do an independent study. Get some research experience.”

Yow. I will remember that for as long as I live. “You’re blowing it.” Thank God that alone out of everyone in my life, Trish Schwagmeyer had the guts to look me in the eye and call me out.

RESET

Trish: “Your grades last semester were a little rough.”

Me: “Yeah. O-chem II was murder.”

Trish: “And biochem.”

Me: “Yeah. Biochem.”

Trish: “Have you noticed that you get As and Bs in your language and history classes, and Cs in your math and science classes?”

Me: “Yeah, of course.  Math and science are hard. Language and history are…”

Trish: “Are what?”

Me: “I dunno. Fun. More like play.”

Trish: “Maybe you’re in the wrong major.”

Yow. I will remember that for as long as I live. “Maybe you’re in the wrong major.” Thank God that alone out of everyone in my life, Trish Schwagmeyer had the guts to look me in the eye and diagnose the problem.

Immediately after I left her office, I marched over to the registrar and changed my major from Zoology to Letters. And breathed a huge sigh of relief. After that, I just cruised. I got my degree, stayed at OU for a Master’s in classical languages, and now I teach Latin at a private high school in Oklahoma City. I should have known that a career in science wasn’t in the cards. The evidence was written all over my transcript. Paleontology is still interesting to me–I doubt if I will ever stop being fascinated by dinosaurs–but it just wasn’t a realistic career option. I’m so glad I found my true calling.

the herd - small.0

 

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In discussion of Samuel Gershman’s rather good piece The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing, I got into this discusson on Twitter with David Mainwaring (who is usually one of the more interesting legacy-publisher representatives on these issues) and Daniel Allingon (who I don’t know at all).

I’ll need to give a bit of background before I reach the key part of that discussion, so here goes. I said that one of David’s comments was a patronising evasion, and that I expected better of him, and also that it was an explicit refusal to engage. David’s response was interesting:

First, to clear up the first half, I wasn’t at all saying that David hasn’t engaged in OA, but that in this instance he’d rejected engagement — and that his previous record of engaging with the issues was why I’d said “I expect better from you” at the outset.

Now with all that he-said-she-said out of the way, here’s the point I want to make.

David’s tweet quoted above makes a very common but insidious assumption: that a “nuanced” argument is intrinsically preferable to a simple one. And we absolutely mustn’t accept that.

We see this idea again and again: open-access advocates are criticised for not being nuanced, with the implication that this equates with not being right. But the right position is not always nuanced. Recruiting Godwin to the cause of a reductio ad absurdum, we can see this by asking the question “was Hitler right to commit genocide?” If you say “no”, then I will agree with you; I won’t criticise your position for lacking nuance. In this argument, nuance is superfluous.

[Tedious but probably necessary disclaimer: no, I am not saying that paywall-encumbered publishing is morally equivalent to genocide. I am saying that the example of genocide shows that nuanced positions are not always correct, and that therefore it’s wrong to assume a priori that a nuanced position regarding paywalls is correct. Maybe a nuanced position is correct: but that is something to be demonstrated, not assumed.]

So when David says “What I do hold to is that a rounded view, nuance, w/ever you call it, is important”, I have to disagree. What matters is to be right, not nuanced. Again, sometimes the right position is nuanced, but there’s no reason to assume that from the get-go.

Here’s why this is dangerous: a nuanced, balanced, rounded position sounds so grown up. And by contrast, a straightforward, black-and-white one sounds so adolescent. You know, a straightforward, black-and-white position like “genocide is bad”. The idea of nuance plays on our desire to be respected. It sounds so flattering.

We mustn’t fall for this. Our job is to figure out what’s true, not what sounds grown-up.

In a comment on the last post, Anonymous wrote:

I was wondering, in the course of your career, have you ever gotten tired of studying sauropods? Not to say that sauropods aren’t interesting, or that you might be losing interest in them, but have you ever looked out the window one day and gone “you know, I’m sick of working on sauropods for a while, I’d like to do some research on (say) stegosaur necks”. I ask this question because many prospective paleontologist nowadays, particularly graduate and undergraduate students, are feeling increasingly pressured towards being pigeonholed in a certain, rather small area of paleontology, e.g., tooth wear in extinct ungulates, histology in dinosaurs or therapsids, or ankle adaptations in Triassic archosaurs. In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to. Though, in your case because sauropods exhibit such weird and diverse neck anatomy, it may not be a problem. In my case, I have been doing work on a group that is very morphologically stereotyped, and while I enjoy doing work on it, it would be nice to branch out into more diverse groups given my interesting in things like functional morphology and paleoecology. I know several other people in my research group feel the same.

I am going to answer first for myself, and then invite Mike and Darren and everyone else to share their thoughts.

For me, two things. First, I don’t always work on sauropods–I have a human anatomy paper in press, and two different projects on mammal skull osteology struggling toward publication, and a couple of bird things. You could be forgiven for thinking that sauropods are all that I do, though, since almost all of my publications to date have been on sauropods. :-) But I have been doing research on non-sauropod things that interest me for many years, they’re just taking longer to see the light of day.

Second, within the admittedly narrow field of sauropods I do many different kinds of projects. To take four consecutive papers: my part of the Brontomerus paper (Taylor et al. 2011a) was mostly writing about North American sauropod diversity in the mid-Mesozoic, whereas for the next paper (Taylor et al. 2011b) I was hacking through the sexual selection literature, and for Yates et al. (2012) I was thinking about the early evolution of pneumaticity, and for Wedel (2012) I was grappling with the internal processes of neurons. So that’s a spectrum of stuff from cell biology to biogeography–sauropodomorphs are just the thread that held all of these disparate bits together. Army ants typically have a central camp or bivouac from which they send out foraging parties in radiating directions. That’s my scientific development in a nutshell.

And I’m still pretty narrow compared to a lot of other folks. Dan Ksepka is best known for his fossil penguin work, but he also described the sauropod Erketu and has published on choristoderes, among other things. By the time he finished his dissertation, Jerry Harris had done a morphological description of a sauropod (Suuwassea) and another of a theropod (Acrocanthosaurus) and had published on pterosaurs and IIRC some other things as well. And then there’s Darren, whose remit is Tetrapoda, and not just for blogging.

One thing you wrote particularly caught my interest:

In particular, many students end up working on whatever the professor they are working under gives to them as a project, and come out feeling they are so specialized in this area that they can’t work on anything else even if they wanted to.

Really? I am having a hard time wrapping me head around that. Does “this area” not butt up against any number of others? I mean, my first project was Rich Cifelli saying, “Hey, why don’t you go identify these sauropod vertebrae?”, which metastasized into the description of Sauroposeidon. But along the way I got interested in:

  1. the diversity of Early Cretaceous North American sauropods;
  2. pneumaticity;
  3. how birds breathe (and, yes, that’s a separate topic from pneumaticity);
  4. neck muscles in birds;
  5. biomechanics and posture of sauropod necks; and
  6. all the weird stuff lurking in the OMNH collection (see for example Bonnan and Wedel 2004 and Taylor et al. 2011a).

That looked like several lifetimes’ worth of work even back in 2000, and it looks like many more now.

Now, I worry that I am sounding like a jerk, because I know–I KNOW–I was handed the most cherry planned-to-be-one-semester undergraduate research project ever. I get that, and I’m as grateful and humble about it as any naturally arrogant genius could be. But still, it seems to me that just about every project involves applying [method] to [taxon] to measure or infer [parameter], and by the time you look into applying the method to other taxa or problems, and into related or complementary or opposing methods, and into other animals that closely related to or in some way analogous to your ‘home’ taxon, and into other parameters or the same parameter in other places or times or clades, you’ve got a pretty full slate of possible things to work on–and this is just a list of areas where you have a head start because you’re already up to speed. If you want to go work on something completely different, who’s stopping you? And if you have intellectual wanderlust but don’t know what to work on, I’ve already written something that might help with that.

But maybe I am misunderstanding your complaint. If the problem is that your research project is narrow, well, that’s a common lament, but the upside is that it’s the kind of limit that might make things easier. If the OMNH crew had found any more of Sauroposeidon, it would have taken longer to prepare, and it would have been more obvious that it was new, and it would have been a lot more work. So I probably wouldn’t have been put on the project, or if I had been, it might have taken up my whole MS and kept me from working on pneumaticity. I am wondering now if a useful heuristic for student projects–or any projects, really–might be, “Keep narrowing it until it looks tractable.”

If you’re bored, start a side project. At best you’ll have a second thread of publishable work, at worst you’ll have an excellent distraction from writing up your thesis.

If the complaint is that your research project is making you too narrow, then maybe you just haven’t been at it long enough to have found all of the interesting links to other methods and taxa and parameters. But I am certain they are there. And discovering them is one of the chief joys of doing research in the first place.

So, there are my thoughts on the desirability–or inevitability–of breadth in one’s research interests. What does everyone else think?

References

(This is sort of a riff on the recent post, Tutorial 12: How to find problems to work on, which you might want to read first if you haven’t already.)

Something that has been much on my mind lately is the idea that if you don’t go too far, you don’t know how far you should have gone.

I first encountered this idea in a quote from concept artist Ian McCraig, in The Art of Star Wars: Episode I (p. 195):

People ask when I know when to stop scribbling, and decide a work is finished. I say you have to go too far and destroy it, because then you know when you should have stopped and can go back. If you don’t, you leave untold riches out there.

I’m sure McCraig wasn’t the first to formulate the idea, he’s just the medium through which I first learned of it, back in 1999.

Scott Aaronson calls brief statements of this sort “Umeshisms“, after his advisor, Umesh Varizani, who said,

If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.

A follow-up post, reporting the results of an Umeshism contest among his readers, also has some gems.

For the sake of completeness, I should note the very economical general formulation of this idea from Tagore Smith, in a comment on Mike’s blog that Mike later promoted into a stand-alone post (the comment, not this excerpt):

I haven’t gone too far yet so I am not sure if I have gone far enough.

Here’s the larger lesson Aaronson drew from his advisor’s airport quip:

In a single sentence, Umesh was communicating an entire philosophy of life: concentrate on the high-order bits. The squash player who runs back and forth to attempt every shot, the student who’s never late with an assignment, the researcher who stalks an unimportant problem like Captain Ahab: all have succumbed to the tyranny of the low-order bit. They need to realize that, as in a randomized algorithm, occasional failures are the inevitable byproduct of a successful strategy. If you always win, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

One of the reasons this is so much on my mind is that I did an editing pass on a manuscript Mike is working on, and he took some of my suggestions, but not all of them. And I realized that that is probably a good thing; if he’d taken all of my suggestions, it would mean that I not edited hard enough. And it occurred to me that the Umeshism philosophy can probably be more effectively implemented by two people than by one. One can’t be an iconoclast all the time and still be productive; you have to settle down sometime. Also, two sets of eyes are going to see more ways to push the edge of the envelope.

“The researcher who stalks an unimportant problem like Captain Ahab” is also worth thinking about–specifically, to wonder which among my many concurrently developing projects are high-order bits, and which are not. Mike and I refer to our lists of works-in-progress as POOP, or Prioritized Ordering Of Projects, but we (or at least I) tend to slip into using “priority” to mean, “what am I working on next”, and not, “what should I be working on next”. I have let many projects slip into limbo while pursuing others, and it would be worthwhile to periodically reassess whether I’ve let the right ones slip. I strongly suspect that it has not always been the case. I just wrote in Tutorial 12 that any productive researcher is going to die with a mountain of intended work left undone. It is probably not too early for any of us to look at our array of projects and ask, “Which among these most needs rescuing from that mountain?”

The long Aaronson quote above also raises the specter of the costs of catching mistakes, which Paul Graham and Mike have both written essays about. Both basically boil down to “safety is expensive”. And that is sort of what I meant in Tutorial 12 when I wrote, “If you’re not feeling stupid, you’re too comfortable, and it might be time to do an audit and see if you’re actually contributing to science at all.” Feeling stupid–in the scientifically productive way–is a symptom of being out of your safety zone, where you are more likely to learn valuable things and have new ideas. I also argued that you have to sift through a lot of facts and ideas to hit on the handful that might meaningfully become part of your research. Most of the stuff you encounter will not be relevant to whatever it is you’re trying to do, but that’s okay. If all of your ideas seem like good ones, either you’re playing it very safe (and therefore the ideas aren’t actually that good), or you’re having delusions of grandeur.

I remember seeing somewhere–irritatingly, at this point I have no idea where–some guy arguing, maybe half-seriously, that any project was plagued both by errors that one knows about and also by other errors or biases of which we are ignorant, and that therefore he always tried to make sure that his known errors were bigger, because that way he was in control (the original was more cleverly and economically phrased).

All of this interests me, because so many forces in our lives conspire to make us afraid of making mistakes, and often even more afraid of admitting to them once they’ve been made. But we all make mistakes, all the time. So what are we going to do about it?

Right now my Gmail sig quote is a line from Clay Shirky:

To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.

The hardest reaction to not care about is your own. Doing good work demands the capacity to take mistakes in stride and keep moving forward. Doing great work might require another level of perspective, in which some kinds of mistakes are just indicators that you’re on the right path.