What Are The Important Problems In Your Field?

I came across an excellent talk by Dr. Richard W. Hamming. He was an eminent Bell Labs scientist, who worked with the likes of Feynman, Fermi, and Oppenheimer. In this talk, he answers the question – Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run? If you are in any field where innovation matters, I highly recommending reading this piece.

He brings up some excellent points. One of the gems – People who do great work know even in their sleep what are the important problems in their field, and they spend considerable time thinking about it. An average person on the other hand spends his time working on problems which he himself doesn’t believe will not be important. He implores you to ask yourself – If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you working on it?

Quoting him directly – “If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem’ must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important.”

“Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say “Well that bears on this problem.” They drop all the other things and get after it.You can’t always know exactly where to be, but you can keep active in places where something might happen. And even if you believe that great science is a matter of luck, you can stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don’t have to hide in the valley where you’re safe. But the average scientist does routine safe work almost all the time and so he (or she) doesn’t produce much ”

It’s that simple. If you want to do great work, you clearly must work on important problems.
So, the real question then is, what are the important problems in your field?