I was talking to some people from the students group at All Saints Church recently, and one was talking about how she’d met the winner (and new world record holder) of an international Rubik’s cube solving contest — a Caltech undergrad. The record, by the way, is now 11.13 seconds. Un. Be. Liev. Able.
She asked him why he enjoyed the cube so much. His answer was that it is a hard, but solvable, problem. Much of the research that gets done by all the really smart people at places like Caltech falls in this category, it would seem. Follow good method, and try enough things, and it is in principle possible to work out the desired solution.
“Real-world” problems, by which one presumably means problems to do with social organisation, economic organisation, inequality, government structures, etc., are often not ideally solvable. Each option has pro’s and con’s. But even more importantly, even the best laid plans have to be executed by people, each with their own agendas. So good ideas get lost in corruption, inefficiency, skills shortages or even laziness.
So my friend’s suggestion, following her Rubik’s cube encounter, was that the reason so many smart people focus on abstract problems, and don’t apply themselves to human problems in the world, is because scientists like problems which admit a “clean” solution. Which is, when one thinks about it, a pity for all concerned.