There are no projects like side projects (Piotr Migdał, January 2015)

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Piotr Migdał is a quantum physicist turned into a data science freelancer.

Piotr Migdał, data science freelancer from Poland, has a strong belief in side projects as these tend to support free thinking and serendipity. Everywhere he looks, side projects are associated with great stuff.

Albert Einstein, famously, started developing his ideas of space and time while working as a patent clerk. It was clearly not one of his duties. Yet, he pursued it, and made some of the greatest contributions to physics ever.

It’s not like most of science happens that way, or most side projects turn out to have a universal value. Yet, this style of doing things tend to support creativity and freedom [1], without peer pressure and premature evaluation. And we do need it, as only some progress comes from a planned agenda and buckets of money. Many key innovations were unexpected, or even unrecognized by their very authors [2]. By restricting ourselves to projects on topics already considered “promising”, we may strip ourselves of any non-incremental progress. (Personally, I prefer to call any incremental project with a reasonable chance of success “engineering” rather than “science”.)

You may think that a great idea always gets accepted [3]. Well, Bell’s theorem (now, considered a founding stone for quantum information) took time to get recognised. In John Stewart Bell’s times it was all about particle physics (energies, scattering amplitudes, calculating Feynman diagrams). His musings were considered a waste of time and something actively harming this career (he never got a professorship). In the first decade he was cited by hippies wanting to connect quantum physics with parapsychology, rather than by the scientific mainstream [4]. Who knows how many great ideas were lost, because of a less welcoming zeitgeist or weaker determination of the discoverer?

It’s not only academic research where freedom matters. John Carmack and John Romero, the creators of the computer games Doom and Quake (and the whole first-person shooters genre), had a lot of freedom in their work at a company. Yet, they decided to moonlight on their own projects (working all weekends without sleep, on a “borrowed” computer equipment) to accomplish their goals [5]. Even these lucrative breakthroughs were considered too risky for anyone but their creators.

As an (ex?)academic, I envy programmers of the open source culture (see e.g. GitHub), who dive into to projects not because they are being paid for them, or required so by their boss, or because they are crucial for their career advancement. They just consider the projects so important, or cool, that they choose to spend their nights with them.

Moreover, it is good to look at activities in which side projects are now the main route, rather than an alternative path. Most essays I admire were not written as a direct part of someone’s work. Almost all valuable blogs are de facto side projects. Furthermore, a fair share of science popularization activity is—or at least starts as—an addition to someone’s paid work.

If you have a great project, do moonlight. Don’t wait for better times, because they won’t come. Maybe you overstate the need of money, institutional support or social confirmation?

All of my best projects were side projects. And yours?

Piotr Migdał, Ph.D.
is a quantum physicist turned into a data science freelancer (data analysis, interactive visualizations). He organized independent events such as camps for gifted high school students  and an unconference series Offtopicarium; now working on a quantum game.

Readings

[1] Isaac Asimov, On creativity – How do people get new ideas? (1959)
[2] Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and development of a scientific fact (1979), pdf
[3] Scott Berkut, The Myths of Innovation (2010); see The Ten Myths of Innovation: the best summary 
[4] David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival (2011)
[5] David Kushner, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (2003); see also as reviewed here: You Don’t Need Millions of Dollars – Coding Horror

About Piotr Migdał

A data science freelancer (machine learning, interactive visualizations, trainings) holding PhD in quantum physics. He organized independent events such as camps for gifted high school students and an unconference series Offtopicarium; now working on a quantum game.
20 replies
  1. seb
    seb says:

    Very nice article. Agree totally, people should persue things out of interest above all other things, because it’s interest which will get you the answers. not money or sponsors or something. Though that kind, and any kind (kind words/feedback etc.) is a good motivator for the times where you’re stuck, or confused about if you should spend time on it or not.

    People now are so into social acceptance and image that they forget that what got us to this point in our civilisation (the positive/creative side of it) due to the hard efforts of a lot of people who were merely interested in the subjects they explored. Whenever i meet someone who’s always working on his hobbies and interests, instead of calling them a recluse i embrace them, and hope they will continue doing this work, instead of getting dragged into trying to out perform otheres, or doing whats ‘cool’.

    Thanks for the nice read and confirming there’s still people who think this way ^^ Faith in humanity, somewhat, restored ^^

    Reply
    • Piotr Migdał
      Piotr Migdał says:

      Thanks!
      Personally I do like when people have their own projects, whether for fun or hoping that they will change the world. And the impact is only one thing – people who do things out of genuine passion (rather than as a tool) tend to infect others with positive energy. For example, do you remember more teachers who were just competent, or ones for whom their subject was their real love?

      Reply
  2. Peter Kinnon
    Peter Kinnon says:

    I absolutely agree that side-projects are very important components in the advancement of science and technology. In conjunction with “just messing around” (the basis of “blue skies research” they promote and potentiate the formation of lateral associations. Also, by widening perspectives they tend to instill a more integrated view of the sciences as a whole. And sometimes to uncover myths that have become embedded in mainstream disciplines

    They are not for everyone, of course. Much, if not most, of the advances are effected by individuals who adopt highly disciplined approaches. And society needs, and is supplied with, folk from all parts of this spectrum. And that is the bounty that genetic diversity bestows upon us.

    Newton, Faraday and Einstein were all great dabblers in diverse areas. The latter, who although most famed in connection with relativity, also included refrigerator design, Brownian motion and the initiation of quantum theory among his many scientific diversions.

    Some, such as myself, tend to have far too many side interests, By constantly flitting from one interest to another, often making very little progress on many projects. I call this pathology “Butterfly Mind Syndrome”.

    Our weaknesses are often also our strengths, however and in my case, Butterfly Mind Syndrome allows me to write books such as : “The Intricacy Generator: Pushing Chemistry and Geometry Uphill”.

    Reply
  3. Olle Bergman
    Olle Bergman says:

    I witnessed a mechanism of insight the other day. It’s not a study in rocket science, but a case story of human behaviour.

    We needed to transport a used refrigerator from a basement uptown – a hefty 70 kg with sharp edges. The seller suggested a cart. First we tried to borrow a cart from our friends, but no one of our middle-class academic friends owns one. So we decided to buy one.

    And suddenly, when we have a cart in the house, I realize that I have needed one for years. We have lots of junk in our own basement which we have intended to clean out whenever we have the energy for some weight lifting with bent back.

    So here, the messy house is the main project which is stalled because we don’t have a good way of transporting old furniture and boxes.
    And the refrigerator transport is the side project.
    And the use of a cart is the ”invention”.

    In our main project we were blind. The side project opened our eyes to a solution which could be universally applied.

    Reply
    • Peter Kinnon
      Peter Kinnon says:

      Yes,for the record, my response to Olle elsewhere was as follows.:

      Here is an extract from TIG that echoes the sentiment:

      “While on a personal note, I have always been surprised to find that when I set out to make a little gizmo to serve some useful purpose around the home or workplace, whatever it may be often seems to take over and devise itself. (Many writers find this, too, the characters in a novel, for instance, seeming to take over and assemble the plot). I may sit down and make a provisional sketch before I start, but when I get into my workshop I am often inspired by various bits of wood, metal, plastic and the miscellaneous junk that I have lying around. One thing seems to suggest another and, more often than not, the result does the job required of it but bears absolutely no resemblance to the sketch with which I started. It seems to be quite common among folk that fiddle and twiddle. Sometimes it is referred to as “eyeball design”. A phenomenon which perhaps motivated Edison’s requirement that his mouth-watering Menlo park “ideas factory” be equipped with:

      “a stock of almost every conceivable material…eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits goats, minx, camels…silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, tortoise shell…cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, jet, amber, rubber, all ores and minerals…” and much, much, more!”

      Reply

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