Research Advice from Alan Adler

Although I am a happy French press user, I enjoyed reading an article about Alan Adler and the AeroPress that showed up recently on Hacker News. In particular, I love Adler’s advice to inventors:

  1. Learn all you can about the science behind your invention.
  2. Scrupulously study the existing state of your idea by looking at current products and patents.
  3. Be willing to try things even if you aren’t too confident they’ll work. Sometimes you’ll get lucky.
  4. Try to be objective about the value of your invention. People get carried away with the thrill of inventing and waste good money pursuing something that doesn’t work any better than what’s already out there.
  5. You don’t need a patent in order to sell an invention. A patent is not a business license; it’s a permission to be the sole maker of product (even this is limited to 20 years).

Now notice that (disregarding the last suggestion) we can simply replace “invention” with “research project” and Adler’s suggestions become a great set of principles for doing research. I think #4 is particularly important: lacking the feedback that people in the private sector get from product sales (or not), us academics are particularly susceptible to falling in love with pretty ideas that don’t improve anything.

3 replies on “Research Advice from Alan Adler”

  1. I agree that #4 is important.

    You have to be willing to say (and think): “this work I did is useless.”

    I find that few people are willing to show this kind of honesty.

    But that’s where people usually say “you never know what could prove useful”… which is basically a rejection of rule #4.

  2. The reason why scientists rarely say “this work I did is useless” is because of the publish-or-perish culture that exists today in science. You have to publish a lot regularly to survive in academia, even if your work is not great at all. That’s why we see a lot of rubbish being sent to journals and that’s why things like the following happen:

    Furthermore, I have a problem with the necessity of usefulness in science. Science shouldn’t be useful, at least not immediately. It has happened before that theoretical results are obtained which at the time of invention did not have any usefulness at all and decades later the use of the theory is discovered. One could say: “what’s the use of space research?” In Galileo Galilei’s time there was no use because we couldn’t leave earth anyway. In the 60’s the only use was the prestige of the superpowers. It is only later on that the space around earth has been filled with satellites which help our communications, weather predictions, … Space research also helps to improve our knowledge of the laws of physics in general. At the time of invention the laser also didn’t have any purpose, it is only later on that it got used in CD-players, … The use of quantum mechanics was also questioned in the beginnings (Einstein famously said: “God does not play dice” to criticise quantum mechanics). However, years later it has shown its usefulness.

  3. Hi aig, I like to divide research into three bins:
    1. that which is useful now
    2. that which may become useful at a later date
    3. that which will never be useful

    Clearly categories 1 and 2 are perfectly fine. Category 3 is a problem, and a common one. It is this research that should disappear, for example due to everyone suddenly listening to Adler’s advice.

    There are many reasons that category 3 research exists. As Adler suggests, some new ideas are strictly worse than the previous ideas. Other research is methodologically flawed, based on assumptions that never hold, etc.

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