Research: from learning to creating

We’re conditioned from an early age to tackle problems that are provided to us by our teachers, parents, etc. But I now appreciate that it isn’t enough to just solve a problem (as we often do in maths, and the best mathematicians are invariably the best problem-solvers). In good research, the ideas have to be original and the results have to be interesting; in a PhD, a major goal is to generate a ‘good’ problem before even tackling one.

This provoked a shift in mindset early in my research career; no longer was I looking just for interesting topics to study, now I had to find gaps and formulate interesting hypotheses. “What about X? Has anyone done Y before?” Sometimes — after many hours reviewing existing literature — I’d get excited about a potential question, only to do the dreaded Google search and find that someone has already got there. These days, it would be nice to have the same time and headspace to be so blissfully naïve! So, to do good research, we must ask a good question.

But how to do that? Here are just two ways that I use to find that elusive question.

  1. Combine many existing areas. E.g., apply some algorithm A to investigate a biological application (instead of the application that A was originally used for). That is, ask, “What if I did this…?” and play around with different combinations (This is also what interdisciplinarity might look like, and is what we are encouraging our students to try at The London Interdisciplinary School, though it has to be a little more structured than boundless ‘playing’.)
  2. Keep reading, thinking, and writing. I used to devote one day a week to reading and thinking (yes, it was even in my timetable as such!), and only while writing this post did I realise that playing might straddle 1 and 2; for the scientist, playing means experimenting with different models and parameters, but generally, playing is about being a little carefree and doing all the supposedly silly things that one would be too embarrassed to do in good company!

In both of the above, a lot of time must be invested. But I think most researchers are prepared for this; to read, to try new and outlandish things, and repeat many times over many months. As frustrating as that might seem, that time is spent accruing knowledge and expertise, so it’s not wasted; indeed, the first year’s work of my PhD was like this but the bulk of it still went into the first chapter of my thesis, though I didn’t get to my research question until halfway through my second year!

Image: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Is Lionel Messi doing research when he creates beautiful moments in football?

For the lucky ones, a good question or problem finds them at little cost, but I don’t think this is the full story. Malcolm Gladwell’s ten-thousand hour rule has its critics, but surely there’s merit to the idea of practising to build intuition. Just as geniuses such as Albert Einstein, The Beatles and Roger Federer invested a lot of time learning their trade — the uninteresting stuff like solving equations, performing in front of crowds, mastering a tennis stroke — when the novelty and creativity ‘falls out of the sky’ into our laps, it is often because we’ve built up the ability and intuition to know how to catch it. Good researchers trust and revel in the long process of thinking, reading, playing with and tackling other problems that ultimately were given to us by our textbooks, parents and teachers.

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