The essence of the problem

March 4, 2013   

Vanilla essence. Flickr: pejrm

In one of my classes, the main project is to formulate a biological problem as a computational problem. This formulation should be such that you can give your computational problem formulation to a “genius computer science slave” (aka you are the slave, and hopefully the genius will come) and they could come up with an algorithm to solve it.

I’m really excited about my problem formulation, which is a new method of sequence assembly, but every time I met with the professor to discuss my formulation, he wanted me to further simplify the problem. At first, I was too hung up on the quality of the sequencing reads, the fact that they are paired-end, etc. My professor prodded me towards a simpler and simpler formulation, the “essence of the problem.” And at this essence of the problem, the solution becomes obvious.

This reminds me of my post about Eric Lander, where he talked about “struggling with a problem” in his interview, and that at some point in the struggle, “the structure of the problem becomes clear, and the path through it becomes clear.” I couldn’t have figured out the essence of the problem without the struggle I went through.

Similarly, I see the “essence” of cello playing as playing these notes, in this order. I know this is a gross oversimplification, but this what my cello teacher prescribes as the first step in learning a new piece. And I agree with him - if you’re not comfortable playing these notes in this order, no amount of musicality or phrasing will save you. Once you have these notes down, you can then add bowings, rhythm, phrasing, etc to create a beautiful piece. Maybe the phrasing and performance just falls into place because of the order and rhythm of the notes. But you had to start at the essence first.

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