17-2021 Do’nt look before you leap !

leap-manSounds counter-intuitive to what they taught you at school ? It is not always a good idea to “look before you leap”. You may keep looking and decide not to leap. You may give up even before trying.

Looking back, as I blow my own trumpet, 41 years after my bold step, I would never have thought I would succeed. I would not even have tried. Thank GOD, I did’nt look or hesitate. All options were stacked up against me when I took up a mission to do my PhD, in France (Grenoble):

  1. My guide/supervisor and I made an unusual pair, reminding all about the legendary “David and Goliath” .

  2. I was young, immature and inexperienced. I worked in an alien land. I knew nothing about their culture and customs, except a sparse smattering of their language. To make matters worse, the weather and the diet were not the ones I had grown up with. I had to live a frugal life, within a modest scholarship/allowance.
  3. Those were the primitive days of computation, aka “the stone-age of computing”. We struggled with stand-alone computers which were programmed with punched cardpunched cards. How many of you have seen or used punched cards for programming computers ? I have.
  4. How many of you have worked on a real “teletype” terminal from Teletype Corporation ? I have. teletype
  5. How many of you have used a punched paper-tape to boot up your computer ? I have.
  6. I had no idea of what I had to achieve, nor how to go about it.
  7. It took several months of groping around, to zero-in on the specific problem I had to attempt. A lucky incident gave me the clue on which way I had to go.
  8. Access to essential devices like a photocopier was rare or was very limited.
  9. There was no Internet or web. I spent several days in the library thumbing through hundreds of journals and perhaps thousands of articles, and copying/taking notes by hand.
  10. Getting a reprint of a publication/paper involved writing a request (on a postcard) and sending it to the author by post. It would take a week or ten days or more for the letter to reach its destination, and another ten days for the reply to reach me. Add to this, the time it took for the author to notice my request and send me the reprint (if he/she wished to).
  11. There was no email. There was no way to ask queries, give/receive feedback, get updates or news.
  12. There were no laser printers of the kind we see everywhere today. My thesis was the first to be typed on an IBM selectric typewriter with a golf-ball print head (a remarkable innovation in those days). IBM_golf-ball . Changing the font or the characters-set involved changing the “golf ball” under use.
  13. No presentation software or LCD projectors were available. All presentations were made using transparent acetate foils projected using a back-lit overhead projector. My foils were prepared using a flat-bed Tektronics plotter (considered as a glorious innovation in those days) !
  14. There were no word-processors around. The tool called LaTeX was made available much after I had completed my thesis. LaTeX is today’s defacto tool for writing theses and technically profound documents. The technology I used was limited to a pencil, cutting and pasting text exactly the way it meant literally.
  15. Writing a Ph D thesis in formal French needs much more than a working knowledge of that language. This was to be followed by a much more stressful and frightening experience of standing
    in front of a jam-packed amphi-theatre and an eminent jury, to present, justify and defend your work (in French).

Luckily, it all went off well. They HBD gave me my doctorate with the mention “tres honorable et les felicitations du jury” which roughly translates to the Latin honour “magna cum laud”.

I would not have taken the leap, if I had thought of all these obstacles before hand. Thank GOD, I did not look before I took the plunge. I did not fall on my face. Sometimes, ignorance is a bliss.

In fact, an unprecedented and dramatic event helped people realise the practical relevance and importance of my thesis. I now know why they say “Fortune favours the bold”.

All I had to do was to keep my eyes open and tenaciously keep up the effort. Reminds me of the famous story about G B Dantzig. That is the power of positive thinking, or rather not thinking at all about the possible hurdles you may have to clear.