Sunday, May 01, 2011

Telegraphing with no dog

There is this classic joke that I heard a long time ago. A kid asks his dad how a telegraph works. "Imagine there's a giant dog with a head in São Paulo and its tail in Lisbon. If you pull its tail in Lisbon, it'll bark in São Paulo." answers the dad, proud of his pedagogic skills. The son then asks about the wireless telegraph. His father, unfazed tells him that "it's the same thing, but without the dog."

I think to a certain extent, illustrates the transition from being a students into becoming a full fledged researcher. There are arguably several definitions for research but they all agree that it's a process in which you come up with (hopefully relevant) questions that no one has made before and try to answer them. But the way you're instructed to do this isn't exactly straightforward. First you start answering simple questions directly from the knowledge that you're given. Then you answer more elaborate questions by developing the knowledge you're given. Oftentimes, you spend a lot of your time just developing the knowledge to answer a question you didn't make. Or care. But at this point you're still a student.

Eventually you're supposed to start answering yourself the questions. But no one tells you how to do that. I think it's by observing reality and trying to find the gaps in the scientific knowledge that describes it. At least that's what I feel the great minds do. But I'm not really sure if that's how it works. I'm still in the second stage and I'm lucky that I care about the questions I'm answering. But I'd be lying if I said I'm not a bit scared of having to ask the questions.

I just wish the dad said that wireless telegraph works by employing an invisible dog. Which, like the giant dog, totally exists.

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