Chasing the unknown

I had a small epiphany last weekend, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise:  I really enjoy tackling problems that nobody has ever solved before.  That’s what led me into a career in research, and that excitement (and the mirror attribute of high uncertainty tolerance) was captured in this recent essay The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research.

The epiphany wasn’t so much remembering what gets me excited – it was how other challenges feel by comparison.  Lately I’ve been considering building another classical guitar project in the wood shop.  I built my last (and first) guitar while still in college 25 years ago.  Guitar building requires extraordinary patience and a high degree of exactitude in certain operations (namely the cutting of frets and placement of the bridge & saddle).  But the rewards are great – the home builder can take the time to fine-tune the sound board and use high quality woods that would normally be found in guitars retailing for several thousands of dollars.  The more I contemplate setting up my shop for instrument building, the more excited I get.

So here’s the epiphany – while there is a personal challenge in rising to the technical proficiency needed to execute another guitar, that problem has largely been “solved.”  Sure, the challenge is new to me, but there are plenty of people out there who know how to build a decent guitar. What I’d really like to do is branch out and explore alternatives to the standard design. Recently some luthiers have tinkered with using space-age composite materials in the sound board, and several now include sound ports on the side of the guitar near the neck, both as “monitors” for the player as well as to enhance the overall tonal palette.  Oh, and let’s not forget “fan fretted” guitars – these instruments look like they were built while the maker was staring into a fun-house mirror. All of these are innovations that solve particular problems of playability.

But… as anyone who has invested years in research will tell you, it takes a long time to become acquainted with a domain and develop that instinct of where the interesting problems (and solutions) lie. As the article cited above points out, most of the time you fail, but you get a little more insight into how to ask the question better, and which avenues might be more promising next time. And researchers benefit enormously from reading about the trials of their peers (I’d argue that we don’t publish enough about our failures – the community benefits from hearing those stories, too).

Will I ever know enough about instrument building to branch out into a promising innovation? It’s a daunting prospect, but then again, what else do I have but time? Bob Taylor in his book Guitar Lessons points out the virtues of getting an early start.  He regretted not planting a particular tree back when we wasn’t sure whether he’d be keeping his current house – had he planted the tree, it would have matured by now and he could be enjoying (literally) the fruits of his labor. Sometimes innovations are begun on a hunch and take 10 years to reach fruition. But if I don’t begin, I’ll never know.

Stay tuned for a progress update as the days grow shorter and I start spending more evening time at the work bench.

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