Bon Mots from Professor Rota

March 19, 2013

As I've posted previously, we are writing a data science book. The preview of the first chapter of our book should come out in about a month or so. We are almost finished with the revisions to the first four chapters, and we've started refining the outline of the next three. Exciting!

It happens that I've been rereading mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota's collection of essays, Indiscrete Thoughts, and I've found a few passages that really speak to me, now that I'm in book-writing mode. Enjoy.

GeometriaFrom Augustin Hirschvogel's Geometria, 1543
Write expository papers

When I was in graduate school, one of my teachers told me, "When you write a research paper, you are afraid that your result might already be known; but when you write an expository paper, you discover that nothing is known.

So true. We all think we know what we know, but when you come to write it down, you realize how little you truly understand it. There's nothing like trying to teach others for forcing you to learn a subject yourself.

Look at the most influential writings in mathematics of the last hundred years. At least half of them would have to be classified as expository.

Let me put it to you in the P.R. language that you detest. It is not enough for you (or anyone) to have a good product to sell; you must package it right and advertise it properly. Otherwise you will go out of business.

Words of wisdom for the data scientist.

Do not look down on good teachers

When Mr. Smith dies and decides to leave his fortune to our mathematics department, it will be because he remembers his good teacher Dr. Jones who never made it beyond associate professor, not because of the wonderful research papers you have written.

Words of wisdom for my academic friends.

One of the rarest mathematical talents is the talent for applied mathematics, for picking out of a maze of experimental data the two or three parameters that are relevant, and to discard all other data. This talent is rare. It is taught only at the shop level.

More words of wisdom for the data scientist.

It is bad luck to title a book "Volume One."

Point taken.