Saturday, August 19, 2006

Originality vs understanding, and the nature of creativity.

One of the comments in the SIGGRAPH forum I talked about earlier was about the (mistaken) emphasis on original trivial contributions versus "incremental" but more profound contributions. The statement is of course stacked (who would argue in favor of "trivial" contributions !), but it brings up a point worth noting.

You can be creative while being original, and indeed this is the standard way one thinks about creativity. But solely emphasizing originality misses a deeper truth about why we do research, which is the acquiring of wisdom and understanding. Indeed, it takes a certain, different kind of creativity to deeply understand certain concepts, often by establishing connections between known areas or making subtle observations about the relationships between entities. Indeed, in computational geometry, we have a name for one such kind of creativity: "Chan's method" :)

Originality and understanding are part of the larger process of acquiring knowledge and wisdom about a domain. A new area of knowledge profits from originality because problems start blossoming forth, and ideas come fast and furious. Over time, deep understanding leads to the building of connections among known concepts, and this further strengthens the area. Mature areas like mathematics find great value in the establishing of connections; the whole of category theory can be viewed as one gigantic connection generator.

Computer science is a young discipline; like all young disciplines, new ideas are valued, and they come so fast that there is often little time to reflect and make connections. My personal belief (your mileage may vary) is that at least in the realm of algorithms and geometry we've reached a kind of consolidation limit point, where more and more often we are running up against problems that call for brand new ways of thinking, and where "more of the same" kinds of results seem less interesting. In such a setting, results that prove less, but connect more, seem more valuable to me.



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