This was recommended to me by a close friend. Funnily enough, he hasn't read it yet but said that his EE 120 professor includes snippets from this book in each problem set!
I'll admit, I had some biases before flipping the first page. Knowing that Ramón y Cajal was from the early 20th century, I was skeptical as far as how applicable this advice would be to someone in my shoes. Additionally, I read some negative reviews when I went to purchase my copy. That said, I've been trying to practice thinking for myself and reading the text for what it is rather than absorbing what others make of it. I think this is especially important when reading research papers and in a digital age in which it's easy to take the side online with more of a following. Additionally, I continue to remind myself that even if an experience isn't everything you hoped for it to be, there are still nugggets of joy to be found throughout the journey.
... And I was right! Yes, it might be a little outdated. Yes, it might be harsh here and there. But with all that said, I learned some valuable insights about the scientific process and the joy in diving so deeply into a particular problem.
Some Quotes I Enjoyed
On feeling that there isn't much to contribute since plenty has already been done:
If we arrived on the scene too late for certain problems, we were also born too early to help solve others.
Although the latter part seems like a let down, I interpret it as an invitation and challenge to begin solving the next problem. I think this is especially true in ML in which breakthroughs emerge rapidly and people spend a lot of time catching up only to be left in the dust on the next topic. And even if you are supposedly 'left in the dust,' you gained plenty of value in learning these topics.
I really enjoyed this metaphor describing the fruits of concentration:
If a photographic plate under the center of a lens focused on the heavens is exposed for hours, it comes to reveal them to the naked eye. In a similar way, time and concentration allow the intellect to perceive a ray of light in the darkness of the most complex problem.
As a word of caution (that Ramón y Cajal made himself), light will reveal itself wheras our discoveries won't. We need to deliberately be working towards the task at hand instead of passively waiting for solutions to reveal themselves.
On why one should pursue science:
I am convinced that true originality is found in science, and that the fortunate discoverer of an important fact is the only one who can flatter himself with having trodden on completely virgin territory--and with having forged a thought that never before passed through the human mind. And let me stress that this conquest of ideas is not subject to fluctations of opinion, to the silence of envy, or to the caprices of fashion that today repudiate and detest what yesterday was praised as sublime.
I'll admit that Ramón y Cajal's view of the scientific process is very romantic but am reminded of the current state of 'science' within machine learning. Lately, breakthroughs have been a matter of throwing more and more compute at a model in pursuit of 'emergence' or 'sentience'. In my limited experience with deploying large scale ML models, I don't see this changing anytime soon. The AlexNet or transformer moments perhaps best capture Ramón y Cajal's words. I hope to contribute to moments like these rather than the release of GPT 10.
On the point of idolizing the greats:
The well-deserved admiration for [genius'] accomplishments would be considerably diminished were we aware of all of the time and effort, patience and perseverance, trails, corrections, and even mishaps that worked hand in hand to produce the final success--contributing almost as much as the investigator's genius.
Supposedly Descartes said the following:
Do not acknowledge as true anything that is not obvious, divide a problem into as many parts as necessary to attaack it in the best way, and start an analysis by examining the simplest and most easily understood parts before ascending gradually to an understanding of the most complex.
Other Random Quotes
"In scientific work, means are virtually nothing wheras the person is almost everything."
"All outstanding work, in art as well as in science, results from immense zeal applied to a great idea."
"What a wonderful stimulant it would be for the beginner if his instructor, instead of amazing and dismaying him with the sublimity of great past achievements, would reveal instead the origin of each scientific discovery, the series of errors and missteps that preceded it--information that, from a human perspective, is essential to an accurate explanation of the discovery."
"Many people habitually confuse inability with the simple fact that they learn and understand slowly, or perhaps are sometimes even lazy or they don't have a secondary trait such as patience, thoroughness, or determination--which may be acquired rapidly through hard work and the satisfaction of success."
"To pursue fully the topic of our research with the limited facilities that we have, let us forget unrelated pursuits and the parasitic ideas connected with the futile trifles of everyday life. Using strength and perseverance, concentrate deeply only on information pertinent to the question at hand. During the gestation period of our work, sentence ourselves to ignorance of everything else that is going on--politics, literature, music, and idle gossip. There are occasions when ignorance is a great virtue, almost a state of heroism."
"Several weeks of relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind. Like the early morning frost, this intellectual refreshment withers the parasitic and nasty vegetation that smothers the good seed ... Travel has the same virtue of renewing thought and dissipating tiring preoccupations by furnishing new views of the world and transmitting our store of ideas to others."
"A stroll outside, contemplating works of art and photography, enjoying scenes such as monuments in different lands, the enchantment of music--and more than anything else the companionship of a person who understands us and carefully avoids all serious and reflective conversation--are the best ways for the laboratory worker to relax."
"True originality is found in science, and that the fortunate discoverer of an important fact is the only one who can flatter himself with having trodden on completely virgin territory--and with having forged a thought that never before passed through the human mind. And let me stress that this conquest of ideas is not subject to fluctuations of opinion, to the silence of envy, or to the caprices of fashion that today repudiate and detest what yesterday was praised as sublime."