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michael_nielsen @michael_nielsen
, 14 tweets, 3 min read Read on Twitter
In research, both problem finding and problem solving are important. Surprisingly often, problem finding is more important than problem solving.
There's a rare, related activity which I think of as field finding. It's not about problem finding, per se, but rather about developing an underlying narrative which generates many superb problems over decades or centuries.
Most of my favourite papers are field finding.
Turing's paper on computing is field finding. So too are Feynman and Deutsch's papers on quantum computing.
By comparison, the early Sanger (et al) sequencing papers were field founding - they started a field - but not field finding, since it was obvious for many years prior that sequencing DNA (or RNA) was a good idea. Sanger et al were the first to really figure out how to do it.
Obviously, the distinction isn't black & white. Eg in Turing's case you can argue that the problem of developing a notion of effective computation was implicit in earlier work (eg Hilbert). But Turing understood the big picture problem superbly, & made it obvious this was a field
I've seen and heard lots of discussion of field founding, usually in a Sanger-like context: figuring out how to make progress on big problems that are more or less obvious to everyone.
But I've heard very, very little about field finding. And I believe field finders are (a) incredibly valuable for science; and (b) dramatically undervalued by existing institutions.
It's surprisingly hard to think of a field finding paper that was supported by a grant. It's a case where you by definition _can't_ make a strong prior argument for the work; in fact, the whole job is to figure out the basic concepts that will make such an argument even possible
Eg you can't motivate the founding paper of computer science by referring to some prior notion of how important computers are; you're actually trying to invent the notion of computers, & argue for its importance.
When such papers were supported by a grant, it was always for something very different, AFAIK.
Such papers often argue on very fundamental grounds. Consider this line of argument, which, taken sufficiently seriously, leads to quantum computers (and, possibly, other notions of computation). From @DavidDeutschOxf's…
It's striking that very, very few later papers on quantum computing take these questions seriously. They instead take the notion of quantum computing as given, and ask questions about that notion. But that wasn't possible in the early 1980s.
What's even more striking is that many funders are very, very keen on field founding. And yet they adhere to policies which make field finding actually impossible for them to fund.
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