Wednesday, 9 June 2010

You don’t understand "ordinary people"

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Unhappy at being treated "increasingly badly" at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1985 and as a result eager to begin an institute of his own within which to continue his research, 26-year-old computer scientist Stephen Wolfram looked to ex-colleague and physics Nobelist Richard Feynman for advice. Feynman's honest, humorous, and less than encouraging response can be read below. Needless to say Wolfram didn't heed his advice and the next year founded UIUC's Center for Complex Systems Research; then, in 1987, he formed Wolfram Research, the company responsible for releasing Mathematica in 1989 and, more recently, Wolfram Alpha.

A much-needed transcript follows. Many thanks to Keeley.



Transcript
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
CHARLES C. LAURITSEN LABORATORY OF HIGH ENERGY PHYSICS

October 14, 1985

Dr. Stephen Wolfram
School of Natural Sciences
The Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, NJ 08540

Dear Wolfram:

1. It is not my opinion that the present organizational structure of science inhibits "complexity research" - I do not believe such an institution is necessary.

2. You say you want to create your own environment - but you will not be doing that: you will create (perhaps!) an environment that you might like to work in - but you will not be working in this environment - you will be administering it - and the administration environment is not what you seek - is it? You won't enjoy administrating people because you won’t succeed in it.

You don’t understand "ordinary people." To you they are "stupid fools" - so you will not tolerate them or treat their foibles with tolerance or patience - but will drive yourself wild (or they will drive you wild) trying to deal with them in an effective way.

Find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible, with one exception, fall madly in love! That is my advice, my friend.

Sincerely,

(Signed, 'Richard P. Feynman')

Richard P. Feynman

RPF;ht