Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Research Spectrum

We all know the political spectrum. There are conservatives on the right and liberals on the left.

There is a similar spectrum in engineering and computer science research, but the nomenclature is up for grabs (as far as I know). We have Theoreticians on one end, and Experimentalists* on the other.  Simulationists might be somewhere near the center but towards the experimentalists; while Applied Theorists would perhaps be near the center but towards the theorist end of the spectrum.

My interest is in knowing if I should say I'm just left of center or just right of center. I see myself very clearly as an applied theorist of sorts.  My work involves a  balance of equations and analysis with simulations or modeling/curve-fits based on real data.  I crave the cleanliness and generalizable insights you get from analytical formulations, but at the same time also care deeply about grounding this work on practical problems and realistic settings.  Sometimes, in moments of doubt, I wonder if this is dangerous ground to be in, in terms of how one is perceived by the community; but I have to say all my instincts and passions place me squarely in this position on the spectrum.

So how should we describe this spectrum:  Theoreticians on the left and Experimentalists on the right, or the other way round? What is your view? 

* Note: Experimentalists are sometimes referred to as Systems researchers in Computer Science parliance: so there is a well-known dichotomy between Theory and Systems. But the term has a different connotation in Electrical Engineering, where there is another distinction drawn between Electrophysics/Circuits (which comprises electrophysics, semiconductors, circuit design) and Systems (which covers communications, computer engineering, signal processing, controls) ;  and from the EE point of view, though this is a bit of a stereotype, "Systems" has a connotation of being the more theoretical of the two.


Anonymous said...

This may be offtopic perhaps but not entirely. While I do understand the importance of 'clean' analysis, what concerns me is the enormous amount of scientific literature (thousands of papers) based on clean models which gets published, archived, and ignored. This is mainly because the theoretical people (sometimes even 'applied theorists') are not really concerned with "making things work"; while the experimentalists who understand how things (should) work seem to have neither the time nor interest in looking at theory papers. Having worked in a bit of implementation myself, in addition to modeling, I sympathize with them. In this context, what is the purpose of all the analytical papers if only, say, 1 out of 100 actually contains some idea that is useful to implementors? To quote Steve Jobs: "Real artists ship". What is a common ground for a researcher? Increasing the number of publications, getting a tenure/phd/..., and moving on, or giving a thought to the ultimate destiny of the research? It seems the university system is also biased in favor of number of publications??

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