A Silicon Valley Adventure

by Jerry Kaplan

The following is an excerpt from: STARTUP by Jerry Kaplan

Jerry Kaplan

…I first learned the truth about scientific progress from my Ph.D. dissertation advisor at the University of Pennsylvania.

A shy Indian man with a shiny, balding head and an occasional stutter, Dr. Joshi was widely known for his brilliant work in artificial intelligence. Our weekly meetings to help me find a thesis topic were more like therapy sessions than academic discussions. Most of the time he would sit silently behind his desk, watching me wrestle with some difficult question at the blackboard. When I was particularly down, he would offer a cryptic bit of encouragement: “You’re not wrong, you know.”

I had spent the past several months puzzling obsessively over an obscure problem in computational linguistics. One day, I explained to Dr. Joshi that I had searched the entire library for a clue to the solution, but without success.

“Perhaps you should try a different approach, Jerry.”

“Like what?”

He pointed to the clock on his wall. It was round with no numerals, only single tick marks for the hours. “What time is it?”

“Four-thirty.” I thought he was pointing out that our hour was up. Instead, he walked over and rotated the clock a quarter turn to the right.

“Now what time is it?” In its new position, the clock looked exactly as it had before, except for the position of the hands.

“Seven forty-five.”

“Are you certain? Rotating a clock doesn’t change the time, does it?” He had a point, but I didn’t know what to make of it. “It only says four-thirty because someone decided that’s what it means. What’s on the wall is a dial with two hands, yet what you see is the time.” I was still confused. He sighed, then continued. “All that’s happened is that you’ve walked to the edge of the great mosaic of human knowledge. Up until now, you’ve been living in a world full of ideas and concepts that other people have set out for you. Now it’s your turn. You get to design a piece of the mosaic and glue it down. It just has to fit with what else is there. And if you do a good job shaping your tile, it will be easier for the next person to fit his around yours.”

“You’re saying that I’ve been looking for an answer when really I should be making one up?”

He looked relieved. “Don’t believe the bull about science being only an objective search for truth. It’s not. Being a scientist also requires the skills of a politician. It’s a struggle to define the terms, to guide the debate, and persuade others to see things your way. If you’re the first one there,” again he pointed to the clock, “you get to say what it is that others will see.”

As I drove back to my apartment, the answer to my problem came to me. When I got inside, I called Dr. Joshi and gave him a hasty review of my thinking. I could hear the sound of chalk against blackboard as he worked out the logic. After a long silence, he finally spoke. “Beautiful. Now all you have to do is write it up and get out of here. There’s nothing else I can teach you.”

Surely, I thought, he was being funny–this was just his way of complimenting me on a good idea. “Come on, that’s not true at all!” I said.

“I suppose there *is* one other thing.” He suddenly sounded more serious.

“What’s that?”

“Just remember that ideas last longer than people or things. Your ideas will go further if you don’t insist on going with them.”

A Silicon Valley Adventure

by Jerry Kaplan

Published May 3, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company $22.95 Copyright 1994 Jerry Kaplan All rights reserved Permission is hereby granted to distribute this excerpt in either electronic or printed form as long as it is reproduced in its entirety without modification (including this notice) and as long as it is not used for commercial purposes.

If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.

Vannevar Bush