Along with my research this summer I’ve been doing some meta-research: being careful to keep close track of my mental states, the better to remember and internalize ways of working through the most frustrating and draining parts of doing research.
One thing I’ve realized is that sometimes I need to give myself a break even when I’ve already convinced myself I “don’t deserve it”–haven’t been working hard enough. Some times that worry is more true than others, of course. But a related consideration, more important than I initially realized, is that there are lots of things that aren’t “sitting down and thinking hard about your problem” that are still mathematical work, and those can get to an overwhelming point where I need to take a walk, too.
In particular, there’s a website, MathOverflow, that serves as a place for research mathematicians to ask and answer mostly highly specific, technical questions that pertain to their research. The website has been up for about nine months now, and it’s become a wonderful resource in a lot of ways. There’s a core group of experts on a decent range of mathematical subfields who are fairly heavily involved, and many more people than have research-level questions to post there lurk and learn a lot from the answers to research and “softer” questions posted.
But many people have seen MathOverflow and wished there were a website like it for the rest of us, students of all ages and professionals in math-related fields who have serious questions that wouldn’t be appropriate on MathOverflow. It’s a great idea whose time, I think, has come. But as I’ve found out in the last few days, when it gets down to the finer details of hashing out what kind of group a community wants to be, and in this case how to avoid going the way of so many forums that are overrun with spam, bad answers, and lazy students, the going gets tough. There are philosophical differences and practical issues and hypothetical discussions of what practical issues might come about later. It’s exciting to get into, to see the great lumbering machinery of a good brainstorming session driving forward. But as I’ve found ou, it can be exhausting, and it’s work. You have to deal with people along with all the math and the policy questions, and that’s a lot.
So it was easy to take time away from the time I was spending not doing research to work on this exciting new project. But in doing that, I convinced myself I wasn’t “working,” and got to a point where I was actually working pretty hard but not allowing myself to acknowledge that because it wasn’t the work I’ve been doing on my research problems on a day-to-day basis.
One nice nighttime walk in the mountain air and watching an enjoyable romantic comedy with friends and fellow researchers later, I’m settled, happy and ready to dive into both math and the math-community-making project again.
It’s a simple point that seems all to easy to let go of if you don’t keep it actively in mind: the “er” part of researcher is someone to whom attention must be paid, no matter how stubborn said researcher is to set all but the problems aside.