23 June 2011

The noble, the artist, and the crane

A rich noble once commissioned a famous artist to paint him a picture of a crane. The artist agreed, though he set a rather steep price, even for one as rich as the noble. The artist asked his patron to return in a month.

After a month, the noble returned to the house of the artist. The artist asked the noble to sit down, and said, “Just a moment, please.”

The artist unrolled a piece of paper, grabbed his brush and paints, and before the nobleman’s very eyes, completed his painting of the crane. It was undeniably beautiful. So lifelike was its pose, so delicate were the brushstrokes!

The noble, rather than being pleased, was furious. “How can you expect me to pay so much for something that took you only a few minutes to do?”

The artist calmly walked over to a nearby cupboard and opened it.

Contained within were dozens – no, hundreds – of badly drawn cranes.

When reading a research paper that you think isn’t very good or very interesting, keep in mind that it may be a crude, but necessary, first step towards making something great.

It may just be a badly drawn crane.

Note: I didn’t create this story; I believe it is a traditional story from Asia.

Picture by origamiwolf on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


Miss MSE said...

This may be my new favorite parable.

neuromusic said...

except that the artist kept all of the badly drawn cranes in the cupboard... he didn't publish them in Nature Neuroscience.

Zen Faulkes said...

Neuromusic: Heh. Yes, the analogy breaks down because the creation of art is an individual effort (usually), while the creation of new scientific knowledge is the effort of many people in a field working.

So if you can't see the imperfect first papers, there's no chance to improve.

Vinoy Vijayan said...

I'm sorry but i don't think this analogy is quite proper. I agree with neuromusic and i think the analogy breaks down over more than just the number of people who work on the project.
A badly researched paper enters the scientific literature universe and becomes part of our knowledge base. Its effect can be a lot stronger than a badly drawn painting gathering dust in the drawer.
A badly drawn painting should be like the first draft of the paper you are hoping to publish that then gets refined through further experiments, suggestions and reviewer comments. The published paper should look more like the final crane than the piece of crap crane you drew first.
If anything, we need to reduce the number of poorly researched papers that seem to be proliferating throughout our scientific publications - not encourage that people put out more crap.

Pais said...

Who is the artist Who painted the image of crane that you posted? Grettings!

Zen Faulkes said...

Pais: I don't know! Sorry, I should. I see there is a stamp in the corner, which may be the artist’s name, but I can’t read the symbol.