standing on the shoulders of giants

i have been reading and rereading and thinking about richard hamming's talk "you and your research". it's basically about how to do significant things in your work. he focuses specifically on academic research but i think many of his observations can be applied to any passionate pursuit.

the talk was 50 minutes in length and there are more useful insights than would make sense for me to repeat here, but the bits that really resonate for me can be generalized to three questions:

1. what are the most important questions in your field?
2. are you working on any of them?
3. why not?

it's the perfect thing to read as i'm just on the edge of entering a ph.d program (if i get into a good school, if i get funding, etc.). i think well, yes, i want to be excellent. of course i want to do significant work of lasting importance. but that's such a daunting thing to think of, like standing two inches away from the hugest building you can imagine and thinking about how to get around it. you can't see the top of it, or the sides, you have no idea the scope of the problem, much less the plausibility of any given solution.

this article gives a starting point:
figure out the important questions.

i think that should keep me busy for the next year or so...