26th April 2007
What is research?
How do we do it?
How can we do it more efficiently?
Science is the process of using accumulated
knowledge to explain observed phenomena.
It proceeds from hypothesis to experiment to
analysis to conclusion.
It is (or should be):
logical (each inference step proceeds rationally from the
transparent (all steps from hypothesis to conclusion are
reproducible (the same conclusions can be drawn by
another scientist doing exactly the same steps again)
Research is the process of creating ideas and
It quite often:
proceeds in a disconnected manner (some steps may
be solved before others)
relies on intuitive leaps (new methods of solving
problems become obvious only in retrospect)
Although science is scientific (by definition),
research is often more of an art-form
With thanks to Archimedes of Syracuse
Define the problem to be solved
Collect materials relating to the problem
Start solving the problem, but get stuck
Think about it for a bit
The “Eureka” moment
Deciding on a research topic can be the hardest step
Talk to friends and co-workers about what you are working on, what
they find interesting and what you find interesting
(Bassett method): Find a paper in your subject, list the assumptions,
and then remove one, as to make the work more general.
Perhaps even find a new collaborator this way
But know your own abilities:
“A scientist gets no credit for failing to solve a problem that is
beyond his capabilities" Sir. Peter Medawar
Try not to think about publication right at the beginning
Think “Does this interest me?”, not “Will other people find this
Find material that relates to the problem
(see my previous talk on conducting a literature review)
Break the project down into segments, and find literature
that deals with each bit
Look outside your own particular research area for material. A
problem unsolved in astrophysics may have already been
partially solved elsewhere
As new problems become apparent, be prepared to
stop working and go back to the literature.
It may be that there is no material that deals with the
problem. In that case, go back to basics (textbooks,
lecture notes etc)
Takes three forms:
Lack of knowledge (no idea how to proceed)
Failure of method (what should work doesn‟t)
Hydra effect (solving one problem creates many new ones)
Try breaking the problem down into smaller parts and solving
each in turn
Try removing elements from the problem until it looks less
Try a case that you already know the answer to first, before
extending it into the unknown regime
Reverse the problem, or look at it from some other angle
The unconscious mind is also really good at doing research. It just
needs a chance to examine the problem.
If you have made no progress with a problem for a while, take a
(maybe have a bath)
Explain the problem to someone else
Rubber Ducking: the act of explaining a problem to someone who
has no technical knowledge at all (such as a Rubber Duck). It is the
act of explaining the problem that makes the solution clear
Go back to the literature
Maybe someone else has solved this problem, or something similar
Try something completely different
Give up, and work on some other (hopefully) more solvable problem
May come upon you at any time
So remember to put on clothes before rushing back to
Don‟t forget the answer once you have it
Write it down
Explain it to someone else
Remember to CHECK the answer
Just because it sounds right in your head, it doesn‟t
mean it will necessarily work on paper
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the concept of
„flow‟: when a someone is completely immersed in the task at hand.
It is characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment and
fulfillment, and external concerns (time, food, ego, deadlines, etc.)
seem to fade away.
He found the happiest experiences of peoples lives came when they
were in this state.
Procrastination “tasks” (such as reading email, surfing the web,
doing admin etc) make it impossible to concentrate hard enough to
enter flow at work.
However, if you can enter flow while researching, it becomes its own
reward, and will positively reinforce itself so that you keep working,
without the need for external motivation
Words of Advice
Consider that your current method of doing research
may not be the most efficient.
Examine how you can improve your work style and
Research is (in many ways) an art-form, and like all
creative arts, you can improve with practice.
So don‟t be disheartened if inspiration takes a while to come
at the beginning
Know your abilities, and be prepared to try and challenge
yourself by attempting harder problems.
The closer that a problem‟s difficulty is to your own skill level,
the easier it will be to enter flow, and the better you will feel in