Skip to content

Principles of Effective Research: Part X

by Michael Nielsen on July 22, 2004

The penultimate installment in my series. This one is rather short, and something of a placeholder; the final installent is rather more substantive, I promise! It may be a few days before I post the final installment, as I’m heading off to Fraser Island for the weekend, and I may not get it posted before I go.

This one is short in large part because it’s about something most scientists receive a lot of training in: problem-solving, albeit not necessarily of the kind that so often arises in research – the kind where figuring out what the appropriate formulation of the problem is may be half the battle. So I wanted to make a few remarks in the essay about the necessity of finding and keeping forward momentum, to keep the research fog at bay.

One final comment before getting into today’s installment. An unexpected consequence of writing this essay has been the emergence of a theme I neither planned, nor was fully conscious of before starting the essay. That theme is the tension that exists between the short- and the long term. This is not an easy tension to resolve, but I believe it lies at the heart of many difficulties in research.

A quote of Lois Bujold, that I put earlier on the blog, comes to mind again:

All great human deeds both consume and transform their doers. Consider an athlete, or a scientist, or an artist, or an independent business creator. In service of their goals they lay down time and energy and many other choices and pleasures; in return, they become most truly themselves. A false destiny may be spotted by the fact that it consumes without transforming, without giving back the enlarged self.

Oppenheimer spoke in a letter to his brother about the paramount importance of discipline in his life. I didn’t understand this emphasis when I first read it, but I now think that Oppenheimer was speaking of the same tension that I have seen emerge in this essay, and how one must resolve it.

On with today’s installment…

The skills of the problem-solver

As I’ve already said, our technical training as physicists focuses a lot more on problem-solving than problem-creation, so I’m not going to say a lot about the skills needed to be a problem-solver. But I will make a few general remarks that I find helpful.

Clarity, goals, and forward momentum: In my opinion, there is little that is more important in research than building forward momentum. Being clear about some goal, even if that goal is the wrong goal, or the clarity is illusory, is tremendously powerful. For the most part, it’s better to be doing something, rather than nothing, provided, of course, that you set time aside frequently for reflection and reconsideration of your goals. Much of the time in research is spent in a fog, and taking the time to set clear goals can really help lift the fog.

Have multiple formulations: One of the most common mistakes made by researchers is to hold on very closely to a particular problem formulation. They will stick closely to a particular formulation of a problem, without asking if they can achieve insights on related problems. The important thing is to be able to make some progress: if you can find a related problem, or reformulate a problem in a way that permits you to move forward, that is progress.

Spontaneous discovery as the outcome of self-development: For me this is one of the most common ways of making discoveries. Many people’s basic research model is to identify a problem they find interesting, and then spend a lot of time working on just that problem. In fact, if you keep your mind open while engaging in exploration, and are working at the edge of what is known, you’ll often see huge opportunities open wide in front of you, provided you keep developing your range of skills.

From → General

Comments are closed.