Comments on the nature of TCS Research

by Oded Goldreich [2002]

Revised extracts from an e-interview published by ESI Special Topics, January 2002

On difficult professional periods

In my field, difficult periods (say months) are more common than difficult moments, and accordingly the difficulties tend to be deeper and less dramatic. Difficult periods are long periods in which one is searching in the dark for something of which one only has a very vague idea. In addition to the intellectual difficulty of conducting such a search, it also tends to be emotionally exhausting. Specifically, often for a long period, one does not get any feeling of progress and this is very frustrating. Only in retrospect, can one sometime realize that these "bad periods" were actually periods of progress, although one did not realize it while living them. My advice to other researchers in the field is to realize that progress depends on ability to survive these unavoidable "bad periods."

On the satisfaction that some achievements bring

I am most satisfied by discoveries that either reflect or carry along a deep understanding of fundamental phenomena. In particular, I find it most satisfying when a discovery is made based on such an understanding (rather than emerging by chance). I am also very satisfied when feeling that I have contributed to the understanding of other people either through my own work or through exposition of the work of others.

On the unexpected nature of our discoveries

Many research discoveries in my field have an unexpected flavor. This is probably due to the fact that the field is built upon abstract ideas and is only limited by inherent truth (rather than by experimental facts).

On the impact of our research on practice

Although some of our research does lead to commercial products, I consider the indirect (and hard to trace) impact of theoretical ideas on practice far more important. I refer to the impact on practice of conceptual frameworks (which are often taken for granted). The same holds with respect to basic research methodologies and to some extent also w.r.t well-known feasibility results.

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