Consider the machine, which takes inputs and produces outputs, embodied theoretically as the Turing Machine, but taking many possible forms.
Your brain is just a soup bowl of machines. For clarity, we will distinguish machines of the brains by calling them "prochines" (a portmanteau of proteins and machines). The way prochines interact is studied in the field of cogniphysics.
We can describe the machines, write out their source codes precisely, and predict how they interact. The defining movement of the 21st century will be the understanding, discovery, explicit codification, and creation of myriad machines and prochines.
This proces has been fomenting subliminally since the beginning of time. Your body, your tools, morality, the Internet, philosophical ideas, and emotions are all examples of machines. Your dreams and ideas are reality.
A few immediate and many more distant conclusions spring immediately from this theoretical foundation. In particular, IQ tests lack theoretical grounding and The Bell Curve book is fundamentally wrong and misguided.
Richard Hamming, who made Hamming Codes among other things, once gave a famous talk about how to do good research and become a great scientist. His talk is often passed around research circles to introduce new grad students to the process.
The printed version is an exact transcript of his talk, so it rambles. It's not as tight as a proper essay, and it's a little long and repetitive for today's blog age. It is, however, a classic, so I am posting some notes with the major points here. If you like it, I recommend you read the whole thing since it has many interesting anecdotes.
You might notice that a lot of this advice works well in business and startups, and even life in general as well (like "don't get angry").
You and Your Research Notes:
First, decide that you want to do significant Nobel Prize -level work. It's okay to reach.
It's not all about luck, since lots of great scientists (Einstein, Shannon) made many great contributions. They got many hits, so it doesn't seem like pure luck. "Luck favors the prepared mind."
One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them. Einstein challenged ideas about the speed of light when he was 12.
You need brains, but only a certain amount, and you probably have enough.
You need courage to dare to think through some impossible thoughts and follow through. Perservere.
People worry about age, but that might be a social effect. It is hard to work on small problems after you win a Nobel Prize young. You need to plant acorns that will become oak trees.
What most people think are the best working conditions, are not. One of the better times of the Cambridge Physical Laboratories was when they had practically shacks - they did some of the best physics ever. Not having enough programmers can force you to invent automatic programming.
You have to have drive, work hard. Knowledge grows like compound interest.
So, effort is important, but you have to apply effort sensibly, or you just spin wheels.
Great scientists can tolerate ambiguity. They know that a theory works, why it works, but also where it doesn't work, and they live in a balance between believing it and not believing it. Darwin wrote down everything that contradicted his beliefs, lest he forget.
Great scientists are committed to their problems, emotionally, so as to not drop them.
Creativity comes out of subconscious, so focus all your conscious efforts on a problem so that your subconscious also works on the problem for you.
You should be working on the most important problems in your field. Why aren't you? Important problems have an method of attack (unlike, say, teleportation). Most scientist work on problems they do not believe to be important.
Great scientists keep 10 or 20 important problems in their heads and are prepared to attack them when they come across new techniques.
Keep your office door open. You have less short-run efficiency, but achieve more in the long run by learning more from others.
By changing a problem slightly you can often do great work rather than merely good work. Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class. The mathematician knows that the business of abstraction frequently makes things simple.
You need to sell your work. There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks.
You can get what you want in spite of top management. You have to sell your ideas there also.
Drive and commitment. The people who do great work with less ability but who are committed to it, get more done that those who have great skill and dabble in it, who work during the day and go home and do other things and come back and work the next day.
One problem is the problem of personality defects, like trying to control everything yourself.
You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer.
You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.
Now you are going to tell me that somebody has to change the system. I agree; somebody's has to. Which do you want to be? The person who changes the system or the person who does first-class science? Which person is it that you want to be?
On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. Originality is being different. You can't be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some.
Don't get angry.
Another thing you should look for is the positive side of things instead of the negative.
Don't give alibis for why you can't do something. To yourself try to be honest.
If you really want to be a first-class scientist you need to know yourself, your weaknesses, your strengths, and your bad faults, like my egotism. How can you convert a fault to an asset? How can you convert a situation where you haven't got enough manpower to move into a direction when that's exactly what you need to do?
In summary, I claim that some of the reasons why so many people who have greatness within their grasp don't succeed are: they don't work on important problems, they don't become emotionally involved, they don't try and change what is difficult to some other situation which is easily done but is still important, and they keep giving themselves alibis why they don't. They keep saying that it is a matter of luck. I've told you how easy it is; furthermore I've told you how to reform. Therefore, go forth and become great scientists!
If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do - get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you've thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one.
How to avoid the Nobel Prize effect: somewhere around every seven years make a significant, if not complete, shift in your field.
The moment that physics table I always ate at lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.
Who are you? Who am I? Do you think you control what you do? It makes me sad to think about, but if you watch very closely, if you take special care to be aware of every little situation, you realize that you don't. Why did you do X yesterday? Because you chose to? Nope. Everyone in that same external situation would have done the same thing, probably.
My friend gave me a thought experiment once. What if, in 1000 years, someone built a machine that could do quite a lot to your brain and specifically your conscious thoughts. What if it could do the most intrusive thing: what if it could literally plant a thought in your head? What if a machine could let anyone make your conscious think about a certain thought? It makes you think.
And then I realized, that is already the case. Yellow banana. Banana banana. Mmm, Bananas! You just thought of a banana. Maybe multiple bananas. Maybe you could taste them a bit. I planted that in your mind. When you read a book, those thoughts root themselves in the forefront of your consciousness. Books work because they are the raw stuff of thought fed directly into the brain. The sum of the things that pass through your consciousness define you and your actions. Language is a super mind-control machine. That's what makes it so powerful. And so dangerous.
Language is not quite the same as the posited machine. The brain is sophisticated enough to be able to select its inputs. You can cut out hearing someone. You can avoid reading a book. You can even absorb language in a negative state-of-mind so that the ideas pass through your consciousness pre-criticized and undigestible. Instead of being absorbed those ideas are scorned.
Some people live life this way, but that inhibits learning. Such people do not grow, they miss out on new ideas which are correct because they leave this critical filter on over everything. Sadly, these people saw an idea that said they should be critical and always have their filter on. This was the last thing they ever learned. I used to always have my filter on. Now, I don't.
And, usually, we don't have this filter on. We are open to the people around us. We read books without remembering to turn on the filter, so that the ideas reprogram our very thinking. Maybe we should, maybe not. Nevertheless, it has strong implications on our free agency.
The New York Times writes of some strong meditators who learn to observe external stimuli dispassionately. Whereas some might be distracted by an event, enough to miss another event, these meditators merely objectively noticed the event, and then the following one. The thought was not forced into their minds, but merely presented in front of them. Don't think "banana", instead think "he just said banana." Maybe this is the answer.
Maybe we can both grow and learn and also have control over what we are.