What are the most important problems in your field?

What are the most important problems in your field

This question was surely not created by but was definitely popularized by Richard Hamming in You and Your Research.

It turns out this is a shockingly hard question to answer! Perhaps a meta-question is “why is it so hard to answer the question ‘what are the hardest problems in your discipline’?”

One reason that it’s hard to answer this question is that many people don’t often think of themselves as one of a community comprising practitioners of a discipline. In many situations, they just have a job and have problems at their job but don’t systematically note the places where everybody doing that job has challenges and especially don’t abstract those challenges.

Even when people do think about the world that way, there are multiple ways to slice disciplines!

People aren’t incentivized to pop their heads up and look at the system.

Framing the question differently doesn’t seem to help:

  • “What are the biggest challenges in your discipline?”
  • “What are the most important unanswered questions in your discipline?”
  • Perhaps the word discipline is at fault

The upshot is that we desperately do need to make the problems legible to people outside of disciplines but doing that is in and of itself a

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