On How To Solve It

I recently finished reading How To Solve It – A New Aspect Of Mathematical Method – by George Polya.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found particularly insightful:

A great discovery solves a great problem but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem. Your problem may be modest; but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive faculties, and if you solve it by your own means, you may experience the tension and enjoy the triumph of discovery. Such experiences at a susceptible age may create a taste for mental work and leave their imprint on mind and character for a lifetime.

Studying the methods of solving problems, we perceive another face of mathematics. Yes, mathematics has two faces; it is the rigorous science of Euclid but it is also something else. Mathematics presented in the Euclidean way appears as a systematic, deductive science; but mathematics in the making appears as an experimental, inductive science. Both aspects are as old as the science of mathematics itself. But the second aspect is new in one respect; mathematics “in statu nascendi,’ in the process of being invented, has never before been presented in quite this manner to the student, or to the teacher himself, or to the general public.

Trying to find the solution, we may repeatedly change our point of view, our way of looking at the problem. We have to shift our position again and again. Our conception of the problem is likely to be rather incomplete when we start the work; our outlook is different when we have made some progress; it is again different when we have almost obtained the solution.

Where should I start? Start from the statement of the problem. What can I dot Visualize the problem as a whole as clearly and as vividly as you can. Do not concern yourself with details for the moment. What can I gain by doing so? You should understand the problem, familiarize yourself with it, impress its purpose on your mind. The attention bestowed on the problem may also stimulate your memory and prepare for the recollection of relevant points.

It would be a mistake to think that solving problems is a purely “intellectual affair”; determination and emotions play an important role. Lukewarm determination and sleepy consent to do a little something may be enough for a routine problem in the classroom. But, to solve a serious scientific problem, will power is needed that can outlast years of toil and bitter disappointments.

If you cannot solve the proposed problem do not let this failure afflict you too much but try to find consolation with some easier success, try to solve first some related problem; then you may find courage to attack your original problem again. Do not forget that human superiority consists in going around an obstacle that cannot be overcome directly, in devising some suitable auxiliary problem when the original one appears insoluble.

The future mathematician should be a clever problem-solver:; but to be a clever problem-solver is not enough. due time, he should solve significant mathematical problems; and first he should find out for which kind of problems his native gift is particularly suited.

In closing:

Going around an obstacle is what we do in solving any kind of problem: the experiment has a sort of symbolic value. The hen acted like people who solve their problem muddling: through, trying again and again, and succeeding eventually by some lucky accident without much insight into the reasons for their success. The dog who scratched and jumped and barked before turning around solved his problem about as well as we did ours about the two containers. Imagining a scale that shows the waterline in our containers was a sort of almost useless scratching, showing only that what we seek lies deeper under the surface. We also tried to work forwards first, and came to the idea of turning round afterwards. The dog who, after brief inspection of the situation, turned round and dashed off gives, rightly or wrongly, the impression of superior insight. No, we should not even blame the hen for her clumsiness. There is a certain difficulty in turning round, in going away from the goal, in proceeding without looking continually at the aim, in not following the direct path to the desired end. There is an obvious analogy between her difficulties and our difficulties.

A highly recommended read in the area of problem solving.


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