Big Problems

Richard Feynman famously said (somewhere, since I can’t find the original source):

“You have to keep a dozen of your favourite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Many people have written about this before, but it’s something I had been mulling over long before I ever came across this quote (not in a hipster ‘before it was cool’ way, mind).

It’s important to have Questions, with a capital Q. These are the questions that you come back to time and time again - the rabbit holes you go down, the links you click on (and actually read), not just the things the algorithm suggests but the things you unintentionally seek out.

Sometimes these questions appear very specific. Leonardo da Vinci had plenty of these. “Which nerve causes the eye to move so that the motion of one eye moves the other?” “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” “Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled.”

Yet underlying these questions is often a Big Question. In a way, it’s an idea, rather than an obvious ‘question’, per se. Leonardo’s was the idea that “all the apparent diversities of nature are symptoms of an inner unity” (Burke 2021, p. 43 and p. 187) - his Big Question is ‘how?’

Other polymaths - they’re typically the best example of this principle - also have apparently unconnected questions that link into their Big Question(s). Alexander von Humbolt had a similar Big Question to Leonardo: his was that ‘all forces of nature are interlaced and interwoven’, which led him to question what the connections were between climate and vegetation, the animal and plant kingdoms, altitude and fertility, etc. (Burke 2021, p. 187).

Michel de Certeau is one who interests me more. He had an exceptionally wide-ranging collection of interest, moving between dramatically different disciplines over the course of his lifetime - from a historian of mysticism to a sociologist of consumption, amongst his constant interdisciplinary ‘poaching’ (as he himself described it). There remained central themes throughout his work, which I would call his Big Questions - Burke points out the idea of ‘otherness’ as a key one (p. 187–8).

Themes and ideas can be translated into Questions simply by adding 5WH - what, where, who, when, why, and how. Needless to say, the Big Questions will almost always use ‘why’ and ‘how’.

In many ways, these can be likened to a thesis. The difference, I think, is three-fold:

  1. Big Questions aren’t immediately or consciously apparent to you;
  2. your Big Questions will likely evolve over the course of your lifetime;
  3. they resonate on a deeper, more core level.

For example, my university dissertation had the core question ‘how does the Merchant of Venice transform the performance of an inherently tragic legal system into a farce?’

I wanted to explore how legal systems are inherently performative, and yet they hold immense power - that of life, death, and suffering - over people. Magic words conjure up new worlds for those involved in it. For victim or defendant, this can have tragic consequences. Yet in this play - nominally categorised as a comedy - the law is demonstrated to be false, appearances can deceive (‘all that glistens is not gold’ (II.7.65, anyone?), and the system can be played. It is a farce. Where better to illustrate this than in a play?

Since then, I’ve started to ponder on the connections between body and paper. Vellum requires blood; so does the law inscribed on it. In another Shakespeare play, part 2 of King Henry VI, the character Cade makes the thought-provoking remark: “Is this not a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?” (IV.ii.76-83)

As time goes on, I realise that one of my Big Questions is how the body and mind connects to paper. This blends into memory and physical spaces; we conceptualise memory as a physical space (sometimes our own bodies), books are in their own way a physical space, and spaces can be haunted by absent bodies and present memories. How does the written word help us remember - but also forget? What are the stories we tell?

Big Questions, as you can see, are messy, and likely blend into each other. They’re difficult to untangle, but that untangling is an obsession in its own right. No single PhD would be enough to succeed at it; I often wonder if an entire lifespan is long enough.

Have a look at your own notes, at your saved links, at the books on your shelf. What are the Big Questions that draw you in?

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(Shorter than usual, since these are my own thoughts more than anything else.)

Burke, P. (2021) The polymath: a cultural history from Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag. First published in paperback. New Haven London: Yale University Press.

Coffee and Junk, ‘The Perks of Being Relentlessly Curious’,

Shakespeare, W. (1591) King Henry VI part 2.

Shakespeare, W. (1598) The Merchant of Venice.

- 18 toasts