The most important thing I learned in graduate school — or ever — about research is: Better to do than to think. By do I mean collect data. It is better to do an experiment than to think about doing an experiment, in the sense that you will learn more from an hour spent doing (e.g., doing an experiment) than from an hour thinking about what to do. Because 99% of what goes on in university classrooms and homework assignments is much closer to thinking than doing, and because professors often say they teach “thinking” (“I teach my students how to think”) but never say they teach “doing”, you can see this goes against prevailing norms. I first came across this idea in an article by Paul Halmos about teaching mathematics. Halmos put it like this: “The best way to learn is to do.” When I put it into practice, it was soon clear he was right.
I have never heard a scientist say this. But I recently heard a story that makes the same point. A friend wrote me:
I met Kary Mullis after high school. I knew that PCR was already taught in some high schools (like mine) and was curious how he discovered it. He said that he had some ideas about how to make the reaction work and discussed them with others, who explained why it wouldn’t work. He wasn’t insightful enough to understand their explanations so he had to go to the lab and see for himself why it wouldn’t work. It turned out it worked.
An example of better to do than to think.
Better to do than to think is not exactly anti-authoritarian but it is close. I was incredibly lucky to learn it from Halmos. It isn’t obvious how else I might have learned it. It took me many years to learn Research Lesson #2: Do the smallest easiest thing. And I learned this only because of all my self-experimentation. I started doing self-experimentation because of better to do than to think.