Often a useful way to start thinking clearly about a new issue is to sort out the known from the unknown components. What are we given, and what must we seek to discover? This clearly applies to mathematical problems, but it also is important in many other applications. Fixing dinner, what ingredients do we have at hand, and what are we without? Finding our way home, when lost in the woods at night, what do we know about where we are and what data do we lack about the paths or topography between ourselves and our desired goal? Figuring out what to do with our lives, where are we now, where have we been, what capabilities do we have already, what skills can we develop, and what is likely to be beyond our reach?

We also do well to think about what we do not need to know in order to reach our goals. Does the price of eggs in 18th-century Warsaw matter to us, or the alignment of Jupiter's moons? (Sometimes yes, but more often no.) Closer to home, can we forget for a moment about all the trivial distractions of our daily life in order to focus on the question at hand --- or are some of those distractions not at all trivial and must be considered to make progress?

Sunday, July 11, 1999 at 22:08:13 (EDT) = 1999-07-11


In the book "How to Solve It" by Dr. (a safe guess) Polya, the method for solving problems begins with advice to 'Look at the unknown!' and 'Look at the given [what you know].' Often playing with with the stuff you have been told is no good without a destination (or not, see HeadlightsAndDecisions).


(correlates: HerodotusOnThePersianPost, Unknown Knowns, DishonorAmongThieves, ...)