Where's the Problem?

Posted 7 months ago | Originally written on 27 May 2010

I repeatedly encounter this situation. It is a very innocent problem but one that, to me, makes a world of a difference.

Some technical books have mastered the art of giving explanations. They can describe any algorithm, process or mathematical model with incredible detail but they forget the most important part: the problem. An answer without a problem is hard to appreciate. It is far more exciting to face a problem and search for an answer than stuff others' digested thoughts in the absence of the intruige that sought the answer in the first place.

When a scientists comes up with a novel, solution it is usually after intense thought and deliberation. Most often than not the answer wasn't blindly stumbled upon. Even when serendipity occurs, the lucky person isn't really 'lucky' but prepared. There is a path through which they struggled to finally get to the answer. It's usually an inefficient path. More efficient and succinct explanations are eventually worked out that upstage the initial path and in the process we lose the main thoughts that led to the first glimpse of an answer. I dare say that the polished answers even deprive us to the beautiful vista their first captors beheld. All we're left with is the bare minimum needed to use the idea - like a skeleton without the flesh.

We need to reclaim the position that problems take in the learning process. Students should be allowed to explore the problem space. We need to try and dig into the discoverers' minds to try and imagine what drove them to want to answer these questions. What kept them awake late into the night toiling over something that everyone else deemed meaningless? It is far richer to be consumed by the same anguish for reason than to bask in the insecurity of superficial knowledge. Moreover, inasmuch as we recognise them for their achievements, they might have died sad and disappointed that they were miles from beholding that which they sought. Perhaps if they see us rejoicing in 'our' victory they will be deeply disappointed knowing that the truth is still out there waiting for one bold enough to resume their path; that they sought an answer to a much larger question of far greater consequence. Nicola Tesla died before his dream to generate electricity from the ionosphere was fulfiled; Albert Einstein elusively pursued a unified theory that would explain all the fundamental forces; Srivinasa Ramanujan died young having only scratched at the surface of his remarkable mind; so did Evariste Galoi, who died at the tender age of 21 and fiercely struggled to preserve whatever little he could the night before his fatal duel. The story is repeated across mathematics and the sciences. At the heart of true genius lies a sincere discomfort to understand Mother Nature's secrets.

Teaching by rote has hardly produced the brilliant thinkers that the world needs; rather, it succeeds in perfecting conformity to other people's ideas bereft of the very spirit of their pursuits. We become like ornate unplayable drums promising evasive rhythm.