Physicist Michael Nielsen has an interesting insight into the creative process in research. He divides the creative process into two roles: problem solving and problem creating.
He explains that the problem solver tries to solve well-posed, well-known difficult problems and formulate methods to solve them without worrying too much about the ‘big picture’. On the other hand, problem creators ask new questions, identify important problems, build links or try to provide a different perspective.
Solving well known problems has immediate incentives whereas creating problems can open up new fields. Nielson describes the characteristic skills for both roles. For problem creators he highlights the following points:
- Developing a taste for what’s important: Nielson states that getting an idea of the past achievements of the field and identifying outstanding issues and problems is critical. He specially points out that the difficulty of a problem does not necessarily relate to its importance and elegant solutions may be more important in some cases.
- Internal and external standards for what is important: Apart from identifying external factors, Nielson also emphasises that the problem should also be important and interesting to oneself.
- Exploring for problems: A thorough survey of an area can help one get the ‘big picture’ and identify issues that people in the subfields have not looked at.
- Getting ahead of the game: A skilful problem creator can identify the critical problems before others.
- Identify the messes: Nielson’s final point on this ability is to identify aspects of the field that are not well developed, clear or well understood. The mess can be an opportunity for cleaning up.
The next entry is on problem solving.