The Garden and the Jungle
I love the place I'm working this summer. (A smallish proprietary trading firm in lower Manhattan.) It has one of the most vibrantly intellectual atmospheres I've seen anywhere, and the problems that we're working on really are interesting, often novel, and eminently practical. For a place that aims to compete in international financial markets by hiring the best mathematical talent that (1) cool math problems and (2) money can buy, it's...just about exactly what you might expect.
In particular, I'm in love with my current research project, which is easily the coolest thing I've been asked to do yet. (I also interned for all of last summer there.) What exactly it is is proprietary (sorry), but it has me mixing machine-learning and stochastic calculus in some really cool ways that have me alternating between coding furiously and filling up whiteboard upon whiteboard with math. Also, I recently got yelled at for taking up too much computing power on the shared intern server, so I got upgraded to supercomputing-cluster access.
The day I got my project (and after I had spent the entire morning figuring out just what it was), I was pretty insufferable. Most of the interns had just gotten our projects, but I was ready to explain mine to anyone who would listen, and would consistently get animated and excited about just how darn cool it was.
On my way out of the office, I ran into one of my mentors from last summer, who asked me what I was working on now, and I launched right into---
---nothing, as the elevator stopped on another floor, someone else got in, and my ready explanation of this tremendously cool project petered off into a tepid "...well, anyway." My former mentor, agreeing that we shouldn't be discussing it in the elevator, wrapped it up with "Okay, we'll talk tomorrow."
I mean, I understand that there are very good reasons why firms in industry need to be cautious of spreading ideas too far. And the phenomenon isn't unique to finance, of course -- I could just as easily be writing about the fact that I couldn't talk about my incredibly-awesome project at Google, or Apple, or what have you. I don't believe that it's a sign of the system being terrible and evil and whatever -- if anything, it's a sign that we're playing with live ammunition, that people are actually concerned about getting scooped, instead of it being a mild inconvenience.
But it's still a little odd-feeling. At school, I'm used to an environment where there's really no distinction between the places where you produce and can openly discuss knowledge, and the rest of the universe. And, true, here at work there's a great feeling of academic openness -- the sense that you can just pull anyone aside to ask them about your most recent problem in probability theory or whatever -- and we can all share, in a way, in the cool projects that we're each working on. But you take a few steps outside, and into the elevator, and suddenly the garden of free ideas becomes a jungle, where you have to look twice over our shoulder before talking too loudly about things that are too important.
I'm still not sure what to make of it all; I think that the mathematical questions that we get to solve here are some of the most interesting in the world -- but when I find myself chatting excitedly to my fellow interns over dinner about my to-be undergraduate thesis, it make me slightly sad that I won't later be able to do the same with my college classmates about my current research.
Still, though, I'm incredibly lucky to work on something so cool, even if I can't always tell people what it is.