by PhilipJ on 28 May 2008
I can’t recall offhand, but it was probably in Genius where Gleick, or maybe some famous figure in the history of science, joked about the way Richard Feynman solved problems. It went something like this:
- Write down the problem.
- Think very hard.
- Write down the solution.
While this is obviously wouldn’t have worked for his brief stint as a biologist, for someone of Feynman’s intellect you might sometimes imagine it to be close to the truth for solving physics problems. In fact, Feynman solved problems the same way we all try to solve problems. From a wonderful essay titled Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine, W. Daniel Hillis recounts Feynman’s internship at a startup computer company:
For Richard, figuring out these problems was a kind of a game. He always started by asking very basic questions like, “What is the simplest example?” or “How can you tell if the answer is right?” He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work, scribbling on a pad of paper and staring at the results. While he was in the middle of this kind of puzzle solving he was impossible to interrupt. “Don’t bug me. I’m busy,” he would say without even looking up. Eventually he would either decide the problem was too hard (in which case he lost interest), or he would find a solution (in which case he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened). In this way he worked on problems in database searches, geophysical modeling, protein folding, analyzing images, and reading insurance forms.
This idea of solving little puzzles as the way we do science is something André and I often talked about as undergrads, and it still rings true for me. Turning a large problem into a host of smaller ones makes research seem far more tractable and gives real, shorter-term goals to keep me motivated.
The article also makes mention of “crazy” ideas, and how Feynman was excited by them:
His reaction was unequivocal, “That is positively the dopiest idea I ever heard.” For Richard a crazy idea was an opportunity to either prove it wrong or prove it right. Either way, he was interested.
I think the combination of those two quotes forms a good philosophy for doing science. Crazy ideas are often interesting ideas (if they’re right it could be very exciting!), and after working on a problem and deciding it is too hard, you can’t be afraid to lose interest and try something else.