Escaping the Confucian trap

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

We’re going to have quite a number of interesting laureates in town. But before we go live, so to speak, let me blog about a laureate who, sadly, couldn’t come. My (totally unsubstantiated) guess is that it’s to do with what I call the Confucian trap. Let me explain.

There is a well-known quote from Confucius’s “The Great Learning” that states

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

The problem, of course, is that – contrary to the way Confucius then continues – once you have started your descent to the basics, that’s probably it. The human life-span being what it is, once you’ve set your heart on extending your knowledge to the utmost, you’re unlikely to finish. If all humans thought like this, nobody would take on the task of ordering well any states at all.

There are several closely related Confucian traps in science. In physics, it’s dangerous to think too closely about the foundations of what you’re doing. If you really want to know what you are doing in solid state physics, you must understand quantum mechanics. As you close in on the foundations of quantum mechanics, you will either end up in philosophy or in trying to understand better the mathematical foundations. Once you’ve reached that latter stage, you’re probably more of a mathematician than a physicist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if everybody were doing it, there wouldn’t be any physicists.

On a more practical level, there is the Confucian text-book trap of writing a text book about your subject. Wishing to write about your subject, you first write about its foundations. And having progressed to the higher level, there is, of course, always one more subject to include. Fall too deep into the Confucian text-book trap, and your book is likely never to see publication at all.

Did I mention the tool trap? When it comes to scientific research, there is always, say, some software that will do approximately what you need. And there is always the temptation to solve your problems by writing your own, much better software. That, again, takes time, in particular if you want to do everything exactly right, writing your own libraries down to the lower levels. Another Confucian trap in science.

The various Confucian traps are to blame for many an unfinished scientific opus lying on the shelf somewhere, or on a slowly demagnetizing hard disk, never to be finished because there was always one lower level yet to take care of first.

And then there are Confucian-trap heroes. Perhaps the greatest of them (even though he quite probably objects to being called such) is Donald Knuth.

Knuth, in 1962, set out to write “The Art of Computer Programming”. It was originally intended to be a single book with twelve chapters. Currently, it is meant to be a seven volume set. The latest volume to be published in hardback is volume 4A, published in 2011. And, as for the Confucian tool trap: Dissatisfied with the typography upon the re-publication of volume 2 in 1977, Knuth set out to program his own tools: clean and elegant typography software.

So far, the reader may be excused for thinking Knuth’s story an example of classic Confucian-trap tragedy. But it’s really not. For his book, Knuth created TeX, the typesetting system now widely used in physics, mathematics, statistics, engineering and computer science – either in its original form; more commonly in later incarnations such as LaTeX. Go to the e-print archive, and most of the papers you see there will have been typeset using TeX & Co.

Similarly, the published volumes of “The Art of Computer Programming” (TAOCP, for short) are anything like the usual sorry un- or half-finished products of the Confucian trap. They are classics of computer science, have shaped the design of computer languages and the analysis of algorithms as we know them today – and they are what earned Knuth his Turing award, so he was certainly invited to the HLF.

Sadly, Knuth won’t be coming to Heidelberg. My (totally unsubstantiated) hypothesis is that he will use the time escaping the Confucian trap instead. That would be in character, after all: In 1992, Knuth retired from the research-and-teaching duties at Stanford University in order to concentrate on finishing TAOCP. In 1990, when most humans had yet to get e-mail, he retired his e-mail address of 15 years to avoid the constant interruptions of his concentration. As part of his FAQ, he describes that he doesn’t schedule appointments with visitors any more, or travel to conferences, or accept speaking engagements.

So while we enjoy interactions at HLF, let’s spare a thought for those mathematicians and computer scientists we won’t be meeting. After all, thanks, among other things, to the world wide web (based, in turn, on some of the infrastructure HLF attendees co-invented!), we can learn about those who are absent, as well.

So, use the internet! Or, use a new verb Knuth is trying to establish, viz. “to ture“: Ture!

Go to Knuth’s homepage, which also has pointers to his books.

If you help Knuth by finding an error for his book, you will be credited $2.56 (or “one hexadecimal dollar”) at the Bank of San Serriffe.

Don’t forget to check out his work on the complexity of songs.

But most important of all, should you next fall into a Confucian trap, take heart and remember that there are people like Don Knuth out there who demonstrate how to make the best of it.

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Markus Pössel hatte bereits während des Physikstudiums an der Universität Hamburg gemerkt: Die Herausforderung, physikalische Themen so aufzuarbeiten und darzustellen, dass sie auch für Nichtphysiker verständlich werden, war für ihn mindestens ebenso interessant wie die eigentliche Forschungsarbeit. Nach seiner Promotion am Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut) in Potsdam blieb er dem Institut als "Outreach scientist" erhalten, war während des Einsteinjahres 2005 an verschiedenen Ausstellungsprojekten beteiligt und schuf das Webportal Einstein Online. Ende 2007 wechselte er für ein Jahr zum World Science Festival in New York. Seit Anfang 2009 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, wo er das Haus der Astronomie leitet, ein Zentrum für astronomische Öffentlichkeits- und Bildungsarbeit, seit 2010 zudem Leiter der Öffentlichkeitsarbeit am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie und seit 2019 Direktor des am Haus der Astronomie ansässigen Office of Astronomy for Education der Internationalen Astronomischen Union. Jenseits seines "Day jobs" ist Pössel als Wissenschaftsautor sowie wissenschaftsjournalistisch unterwegs: hier auf den SciLogs, als Autor/Koautor mehrerer Bücher und vereinzelter Zeitungsartikel (zuletzt FAZ, Tagesspiegel) sowie mit Beiträgen für die Zeitschrift Sterne und Weltraum.

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