The Role of Luck in Science: A Discussion with Nicolas Christin

Summary

Listen to this interview of Nicolas Christin, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, jointly appointed in the School of Computer Science and in the department of Engineering and Public Policy. We talk about the luck it takes to succeed in research, and of course too about the initiative shown by successful researchers to seize that luck.

Nicolas Christin : "You will get a pretty good understanding of where some research idea has come from if you read the Introduction of the paper very carefully. Because the Introduction will typically start with either a sort of case study, 'Alright, so, x does y and this is what happened to them, and so, yeah, we need to fix that problem' or the Introduction will tell you how the paper inscribes itself in a larger body of work but without going through all the related work, as in, 'Yeah, we are different from A, B, and C in this and that way' but instead like 'Yeah, this is what the state-of-the-art is and this is what we are bringing to the table.' And as you read this, you can back-track it all and then see what the initial spark was, what the key motivation for that whole line of research was. Because in some cases, when you do this careful reading, say, ten years after the fact, you know, when you return to the seminal papers in your field, there you may realize or you may find out that the initial idea came from a case study or from a problem that actually was not a problem at all, because really the thing just became famous because it was applied to a different context. And that is, of course, completely fine. In fact, it tells you something about the serendipity or the randomness of what sticks and what doesn't."

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