何毓琦的个人博客分享 http://blog.sciencenet.cn/u/何毓琦 哈佛(1961-2001) 清华(2001-date)

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On Research and Education (#12) – Frustration and Epiphany 精选

已有 4479 次阅读 2008-5-13 19:03 |系统分类:科研笔记

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On Research and Education (#12) – Frustration and Epiphany

 

I have mentioned earlier (e.g. in my series of articles on “research and education” ) that doing serious research is hard. In earlier days, for me the “hard” part is often the feeling you are not getting anywhere despite concentrated 24/7 work. You become frustrated and start to wonder if there is something wrong with your formulation, the direction of inquiry you are taking, and if the problem difficulty is beyond you. Then after many months of frustration you may suddenly have what is known as “an epiphany (恍然大悟)” – a breakthrough occurs. You see the solution and the light at the end of tunnel. I have also mentioned this joy of research in

http://www.sciencenet.cn/blog/user_content.aspx?id=1808

You may now think that your job is 90% over. I disagree. You need to do a numbers of things in addition:

1.       Do sanity check on your data, reasoning, calculation, and derivation. (see http://www.sciencenet.cn/blog/user_content.aspx?id=9328)

2.       Write your paper and prepare a powerpoint presentation. To do a good job on these may take as long and as much work as getting the original idea. However, these are things everyone can learn and do well. (see in addition http://www.sciencenet.cn/blog/user_content.aspx?id=24338 http://www.sciencenet.cn/blog/user_content.aspx?id=24252 )

 But you must not neglect them or consider them as inconsequential.

3.       Try to do #2 by following the Einstein dictum “everything should be explained at as simple a level as possible but not to the point of being simplistic”. To accomplish this may take several months, years, or long after the first paper has been published. But if you have a major breakthrough you have several years to accomplish this task. If you don’t, then someone will write a book about this and you may be forgotten or only merit a footnote/reference in the book.

Certain aspects of the task #1-#3 are somewhat boring compared to the pure joy of discovery. But to be able to write and explaining your idea well is not without pleasure (The popularity of blogging for many is certainly evidence of that). I strongly advise all young Chinese readers to pay attention since you often must do this in English in addition)

 

Finally, what about those months of frustration that seems to always accompany doing scientific research on any problem. I am a believer that our mind works unconsciously in many ways we do not completely understand. There is this concept of “gestation of ideas” during which your mind works unconsciously on ideas without your being aware of it, e.g., we have the expression “let us sleep on it” meaning let the mind work on the idea while we sleep. Thus if you are stuck on one problem, I find it worthwhile to think about another different problem for a while. You should always have more than one problem to work on. This should not be a problem particularly if you are a conscientious ph.d adviser.  In extreme cases of frustration, I’d even recommend that you go to a movie, write a letter to your parents, or do some volunteer physical activity to get your conscious mind off the problem. Then you can often come back with a fresh viewpoint. “Inspiration” comes in mysterious ways after “Perspiration”.

 

Good luck and have fun!



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