The Wiles maneuver

by James Somers, February 25, 2010

On a Hacker News post about the rough-and-tumble of grad school, one commenter tried to explain how he had come to work on seven different projects under seven different advisors, each of which revealed itself after about a year to be a “giant failure”:

That’s how most projects are. I’m not sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that the projects are “planned research.” The process of getting funding requires planning something that is intrinsically impossible to plan. You write a grant on hope, with the large picture in mind and then you get down to the details and things don’t work out. This is normal.*

This little asterisk of his points to a footnote:

*I know of one exception. He explained his system: he does the research, then he gets grants for his research. This gives him time to do new research and he writes new grants based on that. He delivers because he only proposes to do what he has already more or less done!

To which another commenter added, among other things:

The other thing it reminds me of is Andrew Wiles writing a stack of papers in advance so he would have ten years to work on Fermat’s Last Theorem while still publishing regularly.

I’ve poked around briefly and I’m not sure whether this is actually true. Apparently Wiles only worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem for seven years, not ten, and if gruseom (the commenter) fumbled on that detail, I’m not so sure we can trust the rest of his account. It would be nice to see a reference on this.

That said, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important here are the twin ideas of (a) only promising what you know you can deliver (because you’ve already delivered it) and (b) buying yourself time to work on big projects by finishing and spreading out a whole slew of small ones. It’s this second idea that I’ll call “The Wiles maneuver.”

One question is whether it’s a purely academic move, beneficial only to folks whose lives depend on grant money, or whether it can be applied more broadly.

Answer: I know it can—because I’m using it right now. I wrote this post along with about four others on Sunday, and used WordPress’s scheduling feature to spread them across the week, in order to buy time to work on a more involved piece about the insane human machinery behind Wikipedia (coming soon). I was on the one hand reluctant to leave this blog idle for a week but, on the other hand, didn’t want to restrict myself to short little one-off posts. The Wiles maneuver turns out to be a great way to resolve such a dilemma, and it’s easy to see why: it essentially tricks you into doing twice the work.