A Curious Mind W(o/a)nders

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Process of "figuring out"


Many of us engaged in research are so busy with “figuring out” stuff that we rarely have time to step back and figure out the process of figuring out itself. In this brief article I’ll try to turn the lens onto itself by using an analogy with learning to drive a car.

a) Logical Rigor: Some people need to know all the traffic rules to learn to drive. Whenever faced with a tricky situation, they’ll refer to the rigorous rules to show them the way. Suppose such a driver has learnt driving in the U.S. and is asked to drive in India, he will first try to understand how many of the U.S. traffic rules apply in India. Then he will try to map the differences, if any, in terms of the U.S. rules that he already knows.

In the world of “figuring out”, these are the disciples of rigorous logic. It is indeed quite amazing that the fabric of nature can be expressed through the rigour of mathematics and that mathematical rules discovered in one branch of human knowledge apply with minor changes to other unrelated branches (much like traffic rules in India and the US); well, but that is how reality is!

b) Experimentation: Some people need to drive on the road before they learn how to drive correctly. They will violate speed rules to discover speed limits, drive on wrong lanes to understand the correct direction of traffic and so on. They need to check whether what happens on the real road matches with what is mentioned in the traffic rulebook.

In the real world, these are the experimentalists. They are the ones on the fields and in the labs, verifying hypotheses against the realities of nature.

c) Intuition: This is the third technique to learn driving and frankly, is the least understood of the three. Students of this school may fiddle a little at the steering wheel, they may read a few traffic rules here and there, or might play around with the car on the road for a while; and somehow in the process of doing such apparently quirky things they get a hang of how to drive.

These are the intuitionists of science. They are the ones fiddling around with stuff according to no prescribed rules and possess the remarkable ability to divine the picture of the whole from random jumbled fragments.

In a certain sense, it is as if the intuitionists are the adventurers discovering new habitable territory; the disciples of rigour are the manufacturers of the equipment required for discovery, and the experimentalists are the final arbitrageurs of habitability.

In the world of science, the above three are not watertight categories really, and most researchers possess a combination. The intuitionist often keeps experimenting to build his intuition; the experimenter requires mathematical knowledge to decide what rules to check against the realities of nature, and the logical theoretician tries to stay updated on empirical results.

Yet despite all the skill set mix-ups, I’m ready to take a wager for any amount that if you talk to a genuine researcher, you’ll notice one of the three streaks dominating.
Of course, me and me alone decides who is genuine enough for our bet! :)


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