Windows On Theory

Goin’ up, down, all around, it’s like a see saw*

This is my last research life-story (at least for now), possibly concluding this project (though you are all very welcomed to share more as long as this blog lives). My main hope was to give legitimacy to all of us to acknowledge and discuss our uncomfortable feelings and the “non-scientific” challenges of our careers. My experience with myself and others is that many of these neuroses are quite universal. And they are not necessarily correlated with success, which sometimes only adds internal pressure. Paraphrasing what Russell Impagliazzo told me the first time we met (years ago): we really are competing with ourselves, and this is a hopeless competition (I’m sure he said it better). As for myself, I feel that I learned how to enjoy our profession much more over the years (mainly through becoming a little less childish with time). Still, at times, I do feel inapt. Such a period is the topic of my last story.

During my last postdoc year, we had our first child. This was a wonderful event that I had been craving for years. But it was also very demanding. My son was colicky and we were inexperienced and mostly alone in the U.S. In addition we had three house moves, one of which was back to Israel (a move that was surprisingly non-smooth). I was very content with putting my young family at the center and I realized that this is a period that will not repeat itself and should be cherished (turns out that with kids, many periods are like that). I also understood that I cannot expect to do too much research at this period. There was nothing concrete I was worried about: I had just landed my dream position at Weizmann, I wasn’t worried about getting tenure, and I already had many results that I was very proud of (including one with Irit Dinur on PCPs that was quite recent). I could allow myself to take it easy, but my ego was not ready for that. With time, internal pressure accumulated. “Is this it? Did my creativity dry up? Is it downhill from now on?”

At the end of that year at Weizmann (with my son being just a bit over a year), I headed with my family to a summer trip to Berkeley (to work with Luca Trevisan and Irit Dinur) and to Cambridge (to Work with Salil Vadhan). I decided to invest all of the effort in problems related to RL vs. L and felt that this is a test for me. If I’ll fail, then I will scale down my expectation of myself. With this shaky (and so very silly) state of mind, I came to a complexity-theory workshop that started the trip. Though my talk about the work with Irit was very well received, I felt quite depressed. It felt like everyone have been doing these wonderful research and only I was idle. I especially remember one of these talks, with a speaker (who I knew to be very nice) that had an over-confident demeanor. Such individuals always put me off, but at this strangely vulnerable state of mind, it was a challenge to keep the tears inside.

The summer continued quite differently. Spending time with wonderful friends (who happen to be brilliant researchers), having a lot of time for vacationing with my family (thanks to Luca’s great life balance), and ending up with a result that exceeded all of my hopes (undirected connectivity in log-space). I remember very vividly the exact moment when two ideas that I had for many years suddenly clicked in an exciting new way. I remember pacing back and forth in our hotel room, going over the proof that then only existed in my mind. Could it be true? Surely not! But where could the bug be hiding? I remember going out to find a store that would have a notepad and pen for me to start writing the proof down and the slowly growing confidence that came from writing it down and every session of verification (Luca, Irit, Salil, …). And most of all, I remember all of the colleagues being happy with me and for me.

I am not sure if there is a lesson to be learned here. Perhaps, don’t believe everything you are feeling. Or at least – if you are neurotic, you are not the only one here.

* title inspired by Aretha .