(Roughly) Daily

“You fix what you can fix and you let the rest go”*…

Humans are natural problem solvers; still, sometimes no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. But, as Alex Berezow argues, we must accept this harsh reality to have peace in our lives…

Though our species name is Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), perhaps a better one would be Homo problematis solvendis (“problem solving man”). If there’s a mountain, we’ll climb it; if there’s a moon, we’ll fly to it; if there’s a disease, we’ll cure it. Our species’ success in science and technology has even given rise to scientism, the naïve and arrogant belief that science alone is the only legitimate source of knowledge and that any problem — no matter how great — will one day be solved by science.

It is easy to see why many people believe that. We are taught from a young age that the trickiest homework can be solved through diligent study; the toughest sporting competitions can be dominated through training; and the complexities of interpersonal relationships can be settled through understanding and compromise. All of this conspires to create in each of us a false sense that no problem is too big to tackle. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that, sometimes, no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. Indeed, some problems really have no solution…

Berezow goes on to unpack three examples: the Riemann hypothesis, the problem of aging and cancer, and willful ignorance. Then he urges us to understand them as a metaphor…

As we grow older, we slowly come to the realization that there is very little in our lives that we actually can control. We didn’t control who our parents were, where we were born, our genetic gifts (or lack thereof), or the sort of upbringing we received. We can’t control our spouses or our children, let alone politicians. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we can barely control our own thoughts and feelings. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the world contains unsolvable problems. I would go so far as to posit that there may be more unsolvable problems than solvable ones.

So, if there’s any moral lesson to learn from the aforementioned “unsolvable problems,” let it be that they serve as a metaphor for the greater truth that we control far less than we think we do, and that we must become comfortable with that discomforting fact. How? Perhaps the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr could help:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Or perhaps this cheekier version will suffice:

Give me coffee to change the things I can
And wine to accept the things I cannot.

The very concept of a “problem with no solution” goes against human nature, but they’re everywhere– and we need to find ways to relate to them: “Problems with no solution: From math to politics, some things humans cannot solve,” from @AlexBerezow @bigthink.

* Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men


As we ruminate on resolution, we might we might send bright birthday greetings to Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen; he was born on this date in 1811. A chemist, he observed– with a prototype spectroscope that he created– that each element emits a light of characteristic wavelength (thus founding the field of spectrum analysis) and used his insight to discover two new elements, caesium and rubidium.

But Bunsen is probably best remembered for his creation of the Bunsen burner, a gas burner with a non-luminous flame that does not interfere with the colored flame given off by the test material–ubiquitous in labs around the world. Indeed, today is (Inter)National Bunsen Burner Day.


%d bloggers like this: