In the Chronicle of Higher Education essay discussed yesterday, the author (R Hampel) is also concerned about what happens to our ideas when we die before acting on these ideas. He wrote:
I was also surprised that no one had made plans for what to do with their topics for future research if they suddenly died.
I must admit that I do not share his concerns.
Unless someone has figured out how to cure cancer and just hasn't gotten around to jotting it down, our basic research ideas, however important to us personally when we are alive, probably need not survive us.
I once described how I was given the task of sorting through a deceased professor's office, deciding what should be archived and what should be tossed. At the time, another professor suggested to me that I finish some of the work left undone by the deceased professor, and he showed me where the relevant notes and materials were. I spent some time looking everything over and thinking about it, but then decided that the project wasn't worth doing, at least not by me. It might have been very interesting and fulfilling for the person whose idea it was originally, as it represented an extension of some other things he'd worked on, but it wasn't interesting to me. I do not think the world of science has suffered as a result of my decision.
I do not have an organized system for writing down my ideas for future research. I probably should have one just for my own use because I am getting increasingly forgetful, but I think that posterity will not be harmed in any way if I do not keep an accessible archive of my research ideas.
Ideas can be very personal things that give us intellectual joy as we develop them, and that can lead to interesting results, discussions, and other effects in the academic and broader community, but for most of us involved in basic research, our ideas probably don't need to outlive us.
This doesn't need to sound as negative as it does. I am not saying that our ideas shouldn't outlive us because many of us have useless or transient ideas. Consider instead an analogy with great artists. Imagine if Dostoevsky hadn't quite gotten around to writing The Brothers Karamazov and instead just left some notes about his ideas for the book. If someone found his notes, however detailed (third son of landowner.. patricide.. brothers.. moral struggle.. free will.. doubt), would they be able to create the novel? Similarly, what if Picasso scribbled a few notes about a drawing or painting he wanted to do in his last year or so (my hand.. flowers? guitar? to a woman? to a cat?), but didn't quite get around to sketching it all out. Could someone just finish it off for him based on the idea he left?
Clearly our ideas are brilliant when we have them and execute them, but for most of us whose creative activities do not cure diseases, stop wars, or keep airplanes from falling out of the sky, I guess we'll just have to take our ideas with us when we go.
8 months ago