28 June 2017

Google and Grothendieck

There is a piece of open source software that we use occasionally.  Its primary author is a single Google employee, whose work on it is (as far as we can tell) a large part of his employment.  I was reading part of the source today, and remarked that it was surprisingly bad code stylistically - enormous functions, enormous files, many global variables, and so forth - but tremendously functional.  A coworker replied:

You can really tell who at Google is good enough that they're left alone to do their own thing.

And it reminded me of this, something that Alexander Grothendieck supposedly said:

In those critical years I learned how to be alone. [But even] this formulation doesn't really capture my meaning. I didn't, in any literal sense learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these three years of work in isolation [1945–1948], when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring, in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law....By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me, both at the lycée and at the university, that one shouldn't bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like "volume," which was "obviously self-evident," "generally known," "unproblematic," etc....It is in this gesture of "going beyond," to be something in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one—it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course.


Since then I've had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my "elders" and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more "gifted" than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle—while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn (so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still, from the perspective of thirty or thirty-five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They've all done things, often beautiful things, in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they've remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have had to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: the capacity to be alone.
And it lines up - I'm pretty sure this developer of ours wrote his magnum opus in solitude first, and then was hired by Google to develop it after it had shaken up the field.  No concern for "best practices", no design by committee, just wrestling with the hard problems and solving them by whatever means necessary, in the time required to do it correctly and efficiently, releasing when it's good and ready.

O!  To program like that!

...  Well, what're you doing this weekend?

(I am in turn reminded of something Hamming said in "You and Your Research": you'll get the resources to do the job after you've proven you can do it without them, on your own time)

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