###### tags: `one-offs` `history` `principles` # The "Approximation to What?" Principle **Overview**: In this note, I discuss a recurrent question which can be used to generate research questions about methods of all sorts. I then discuss a specific instance of how this question has proved fruitful in the theory of optimisation algorithms. ## Methods and Approximations A nice story is that when Brad Efron derived the bootstrap, it was done in service of the question “What is the jackknife an approximation to?”. I can't help but agree that there's something quite exciting about research questions which have this same character of ''What is (this existing thing) an approximation to?''. One bonus tilt on this which I appreciate is that there can be multiple levels of approximation, and hence many answers to the same question. One well-known example is gradient descent, which can be viewed as an approximation to the proximal point method, which can then itself be viewed as an approximation to a gradient flow. There are probably even more stops along the way here. In this case, there is even the perspective that from the perspective of mathematical theory, there may be at least as much to be gained by stopping off at the proximal point interpretation, as there is from the gradient flow perspective. My experience is that generalist applied mathematicians get to grips with the gradient flow quickly, but optimisation theorists can squeeze more out of the PPM formulation. There is thus some hint that using this 'intermediate' approximation can be particularly insightful in its own right. It would be interesting to collect more examples with this character.