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I'm confused about a statement by Israel Gelfand given in the book TOPSY TURVY: A Book for All in One Page No:155

Why did Israel Gelfand say “You have to be fast only to catch fleas,” and how does this phrase apply to researchers?

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    This quote basically implies you can be slow for "big results" but I'm not really sure it's accurate anymore except in some exceptional cases like Fermats Last Theorem. The quantity of papers coming out continues to grow. Doing any type of original work is becoming increasingly difficult for every field. – FourierFlux Mar 4 at 2:17
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    @FourierFlux Ah, but the questions considered and our toolboxes also continue to grow. I'm not convinced that research is getting more difficult---it's always been hard---though how people do research has changed. – Kimball Mar 4 at 11:39
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    "Unless your objective is catching fleas, you dont need to worry about being fast" – Strawberry Mar 4 at 15:30
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    It would be useful if you can give more of the context preceding the quote, for the benefit of those of us who don’t have this book. – Dan Romik Mar 4 at 16:12
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    Also the book you are quoting seems like a book of random quotes, some of them mis-translated, misappropriated or taken out of context. – Tom Mar 4 at 20:40
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To me, at least, the metaphor seems clear. Anyone can pick up pennies off the street, but it takes hard work and time to amass a fortune. Hmmm. Another metaphor.

If you want to make a reputation publishing trivial (or small) results, then you have to be fast, since they are available to most mathematicians in a subfield. But if you want to do great things (catch bears, for example), it will take time and effort. It will, necessarily be slower and that is ok as the results are more profound.

The word "only" in the quote is very important. Yes, you need to be fast to catch small, fleeting, things, but only for that. Without that word, the meaning would be entirely different.

Gelfand, of course, is known for some pretty profound work. They didn't result from 3 week research projects.

And, this is only my speculation, since he can't be asked directly.

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    Just to add that this is quite a common expression in Russian, and the gist is essentially correct: no need to rush, we aren't hunting fleas here. – rg_software Mar 3 at 16:08
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    No, I don't think that's quite the same meaning. I'd say "You only have to be fast to catch fleas" as in, if you want to catch fleas, you have to be fast with the implication being that if you want to catch something bigger, speed is less important. – Foon Mar 3 at 22:19
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    Inferring from this and my language knowledge, it might be (for a better result the original quote is needed) the counterpart of the English saying "Nothing must be done hastily but killing of fleas." But the Russian counterpart means to me merely "don't be in haste", "don't rush things". – Oleg Lobachev Mar 3 at 22:25
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    @Federico, no, "fleas" sounds better in Russian, although the two words are just as close. But the main difference is that it's practical: nobody really catches flies by hand: there are better methods. Whereas catching fleas was common (well, still is: I recently caught a flea on my dog), and you need to be really quick before it jumps off and disappears (as is well known, fleas are record jumpers with respect to their size). – Zeus Mar 4 at 23:26
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    The word order in the question is in fact the most appropriate one, but the contrapositive might convey the literal meaning more clearly: "You do not need to be fast for any reason other than to catch fleas". If instead the quotation were "You only need to be fast to catch fleas" then the most ready interpretation would be that speed is sufficient for flea catching. – John Bollinger Mar 5 at 2:03
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This is just speculation, but as a native Russian speaker, I'm pretty sure this is a literal translation of a Russian saying, better translated as "You only need haste when catching fleas" (Спешка нужна только при ловле блох). Since Israel Gelfand had lived in USSR, I think it's pretty likely he was referencing it.

It's pretty much a generic "haste makes waste" proverb that means you shouldn't rush and that you should think before doing something.

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  • I would vote this answer up if you could convince me with a citation or two that this information is correct. – Matthew Christopher Bartsh Mar 12 at 17:14
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Not an answer, but another "catch a flea" quote from a mathematician.

In guessing a conundrum, or in catching a flea, we do not expect the breathless victor to give us afterwards, in cold blood, a history of the mental or muscular efforts by which he achieved success; but a mathematical calculation is another thing.

Lewis Carroll
A Tangled Tale
Answers to Knot 4

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I am only speculating, but the meaning in this context seems clear to me: "You only need to be quick about generating and publishing material when the material is relatively trivial." The implication is that you can take your time, not only not rushing, but even being somewhat slow, when you are generating momentous material, that is to say, solving big problems.

Furthermore, "fleas" may allude to opportunities to generate trivial new mathematical content in the form of minor nitpicks, adjustments, corrections, and additions to a recently published big breakthrough. These "fleas" are thus perhaps small spin-offs from recent breakthroughs that are easily seen by everyone. There may be an allusion to a woolly mammoth or other large animal, brought down by some great hunter, that has fleas on it. You would need to be quick if you are to catch one or more of them before they have been caught by other hunters.

I also get a sense that catching fleas is not something to be proud of.

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  • I realized that the last part of my answer was not quite right, and improved it just now. I caught myself being a bit silly. You guys missed a chance to criticize/correct me :) Better luck next time. – Matthew Christopher Bartsh Apr 1 at 16:10
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I don't think this is accurate any more, unfortunately people are expected to come up even with big results with a reasonable amount of speed. Wiles and Fermat's Last Theorem is a bit of an exception if I remember rightly, as he was salami slicing and publishing intermediate results as separate papers on the way to the proof to give the illusion of productivity (see the book by Singh).

I'm also interested in the extent to which this applies to scientific research and physics. I guess it still applies but then there really is a race for results and sometimes time is of the essence. In general a lot of emphasis is given towards those people that can make very quick (not necessarily non-trivial) extensions of other people's work or to come up with quick explanations of recent experimental results.

In physics, Einstein said he had no time for those physicists who 'find where the board is thin and drill lots of small holes' ie. he was interested in things which took a lot of thought and conceptual understanding rather than just choosing what looked to be an area with lots of quick results which can be obtained with relative ease and speed.

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