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Solving Scientific Problems Using TRIZ

Boris Zlotin, Alla Zusman, Len Kaplan, Svetlana Visnepolschi, 
Vladimir Proseanic and Sergey Malkin

The first attempt to apply TRIZ to the solving of scientific problems (i.e., to make discoveries) was made by Genrich Altshuller in the early 1960s. Following the procedure he had established earlier, Altshuller analyzed certain facts from the history of scientific discoveries. As a result, he identified two types of discovery:

  • Discovery of a new fact/phenomenon

  • Finding an explanation (discovering a mechanism) for a fact/phenomenon that doesn’t comply with existing theories

As a next step, Altshuller unveiled and formulated a set of methods that proved helpful in discovering new facts and developing plausible theories. He applied these methods to the mystery of the Tungusskiy meteorite – a set of mysterious events associated with a huge meteorite that entered the Earth’s atmosphere in the early 1900s, then disappeared. This work of Altshuller’s might be dismissed as an exercise in pure fantasy (which it was); however, it resulted in the invention (prediction!) of the physical phenomenon of the self-concentration of laser beams in non-linear mediums, later discovered by a physicist by the name of Askaryan.

In the 1970s, Altshuller disciples Igor Kondrakov and Gennadiy Filkovskiy completed several works in the above direction discovered by Altshuller. About the same time, Valery Tzourikov and Georgiy Golovchenko made their discoveries in the area of astrophysics and plant biology as a result of applying the TRIZ approach.

A significant contribution to the subject was made by Volyuslav Mitrofanov. As a chief engineering deputy at the large semi-conductor company Svetlana (the Russian equivalent of Intel) he was actually a high-level troubleshooter. At the same time he was also conducting his own TRIZ research and serving as teacher and administrator at the largest public TRIZ University in St. Petersburg. Working to implement the first microchips, Mitrofanov faced numerous baffling effects related to production that were necessary to resolve. As a result, he solved numerous inventive and scientific problems and implemented most of his solutions, enabling him to quickly test his scientific ideas. In time, scientific problems became Mitrofanov's main interest; he went on to publish several papers and a book on this subject, in which the most important ideas are the following:

  • Unveiling asymmetry in various systems (from machines to molecules) as the underlying cause of contradictions; utilization of asymmetry as a driving source of evolution; unveiling ways to compensate for asymmetry.

  • The idea of conducting opposing experiments – i.e., a pair of experiments directed toward achieving opposite results or utilizing alternative methods. If indeed opposite results were obtained, then a critical third experiment was conducted.

  • Modifying conventional TRIZ tools and instruments such as the patterns of evolution, ideality, contradictions, substance-field formulas, utilization of analogies, etc. for the purpose of solving scientific problems.

  • A seven-step process for solving scientific problems, including:
    Unveiling asymmetry and methods of compensating for it
    Conducting an opposite experiment
    Identifying and resolving physical or technical contradictions
    Utilizing patterns of evolution
    Utilizing resources available in the system and its environment (especially time resources)
    Building an ideal model of the solution
    Identifying how to produce an observed phenomenon

Using this approach, Mitrofanov successfully identified the mechanism underlying a physical effect named after the physicist Russell (who had discovered this effect in the 19th century but could not offer an adequate explanation). Solving this scientific problem, Mitrofanov was able to build an important device for producing microchips, for which he received a special award. He also made several other important discoveries in the area of solid-state physics, solved numerous inventive problems, and revealed the root causes of numerous production defects (and then eliminated them) in the semi-conductor industry.

In the mid-1970s, Boris Zlotin, Mitrofanov’s student and later a TRIZ educator and board member at St. Petersburg TRIZ University, became involved in scientific work led by Mitrofanov. In the early 1980s Zlotin continued this work together with Alla Zusman. At that time, Zlotin and Zusman were committed to developing a system for solving scientific problems; they started collecting and documenting typical scientific problems and solutions, following Altshuller’s basic approach. A year of work yielded only several dozen reliable situations (the main obstacle was the absence of a system of documentation – similar to the patent library – of such solutions). It became clear that their work was “a long shot.” At the same time, Ms. Zusman suggested utilizing and analyzing an available resource – namely, the scientific problems solved by TRIZ professionals. Together with the understanding that the nature of scientific problems and production defects (or failures with unknown root causes) were the same, this approach led to the formulation of the idea of transferring known TRIZ approaches into a new area. The only thing that was missing was the actual principle of transfer that would allow the new type of problem to be converted into the known one. In the case of scientific problems, this principle was known as problem inversion.

The essence of problem inversion is simple: instead of asking “How can a certain phenomenon be explained?” one asks instead “How can this phenomenon be obtained under existing conditions?" The problem therefore becomes a typical inventive problem and can be attacked using existing TRIZ tools such as the innovation principles, ARIZ, operators, etc.

When solving converted scientific problems, the concept of utilizing resources becomes extremely important. Of course, the utilization of resources is critical when solving inventive problems because it helps to increase the ideality of the solution – but in many situations the ideal solution is unattainable. In solving scientific problems, however, the utilization of resources is mandatory, because if a certain event has already taken place, the necessary resources were present.

Besides making available the TRIZ tools and approaches, problem inversion makes it possible to apply conventional technological knowledge to solve scientific problems.

Example

It is well known that a runner should breathe through the nose rather than the mouth. Running while breathing deeply through a wide-open mouth quickly causes the runner to pant for air. Amazing as it sounds, there is no adequate explanation for why this happens (other than the obvious fact that breathing through the nose requires more effort and yields less air). We asked a physician specializing in sports medicine for an explanation. He gave us two reasons:

  • Breathing through the nose warms the air before it enters the lungs, and therefore does not cause overcooling of the body

  • The nose works as a filter, preventing dust from entering the lungs.

After some consideration, both these explanations seemed erroneous. First, in the summertime we were usually concerned with high ambient temperature rather than overcooling. Second, the air where we were running was clean enough.

We decided to apply the principle of problem inversion to this situation. The inverted problem therefore became: How can we force a person to pant?

We knew of at least one method: hyperventilation (i.e., breathing deeply and frequently, which produces the same result and is usually explained as the result of saturating the blood with oxygen). The cause was still unclear, however, because breathing in an oxygen-rich environment doesn’t cause panting. Moreover, when one is running there is usually a lack, rather than an excess, of oxygen.

The next step was to look for a similar effect in technology. To make this transition, it was necessary to create a mechanical model of “breathing.” If we regard the lung as a pump, the question becomes: How can we force this pump to work ineffectively? As it happened, one of the authors was at that time working for a company that designed water pumps; he readily ascertained that a pump works ineffectively if it is not properly loaded. In other words, if a pump designed to pump water from 400 meters is forced to work at 4 meters, or work without any water at all, all the energy consumed by the pump is converted into heat and eventually destroys the pump.

If the above technical fact is applied to that of a runner, the following hypothesis can be formulated: When one breathes through a wide open mouth, there is not enough load for the “pump” (lung), which might result in ineffective work and substantial loss of energy. On the contrary, breathing through the nose allows the lung to be properly loaded.

We conducted a simple experiment by attempting to breathe through tightly-closed teeth and half-closed lips. The results were even better than those obtained when breathing through the nose, because it became possible to change the air resistance depending on the mode of running (a super-effect!).

The idea of problem inversion looks rather simple, yet it resulted in several non-trivial effects. One of these was the relief from the psychological pressure of dealing with a “mystery,” which makes scientific problems appear more difficult than they really are. Another effect is that of breaking the inertia of accepting a well-known explanation without challenging its validity. Unfortunately, the accepted explanation is not necessarily the correct one, and often contains circular definitions or, in the worst case, prevents us from looking for the true root causes and explanations.

A solution obtained using problem inversion lets us formulate a hypothesis which must then be verified (TRIZ can be helpful here as well). This approach essentially transforms the process of solving a scientific problem into one of inventing an explanatory mechanism. And once the mechanism of a phenomenon is fully understood, it can be controlled (i.e., amplified, weakened, eliminated, etc.).

The authors first successfully applied the above approach for the purpose of solving several research problems related to deep-level water pumps – problems that were not well understood. In 1985 we started teaching the problem inversion approach to our students. One student, Anatoliy Yoisher, used it to solve a critical problem in the area of micro-wire production that had gone unresolved for more than 15 years. Based on his solution, he completed his Ph.D. dissertation and was able to quickly begin production of a new type of micro-wire. To date, dozens of scientific problems in different areas, including physics, chemistry, math, and biology, have been solved.

It was also found that the same approach could help in solving criminal problems and in identifying the root causes of production defects and failures. This last application became the most effective one. Apparently, people are often in no hurry to implement new inventive ideas, especially if the old idea is adequate.  On the other hand, finding the root causes of a failure and quickly fixing them provides a tangible return on investment.

In addition to solving specific scientific problems, we continued working in the following areas:

  • Refining techniques related to the application of TRIZ tools to scientific problems

  • Revealing and formulating patterns of evolution of scientific systems (theories and hypothesis)

  • Developing general methods of building new scientific concepts.

To test our findings, we decided to apply them to some large-scale problems. After a careful selection process we identified the following three areas:

  • Building TRIZ as a conventional science

  • The theory of evolution of social systems

  • Enhancing the theory of biological evolution

The first item has been addressed in previous publications (see TRIZ in Progress, Ideation International Inc., 1999). The other two will be addressed in forthcoming publications.


References

  1. Genrich Altshuller, "How scientific discoveries are made," manuscript, 1960.  Published later in Solving Scientific Problems (Kishinev: STC Progress in association with Kartya Moldovenyaska, 1991). In Russian.

  2. Solving Scientific Problems (Kishinev: STC Progress in association with Kartya Moldovenyaska, 1991). In Russian.

  3. Volyuslav Mitrofanov, From Manufacturing Defect to Scientific Discovery (St. Petersburg: TRIZ Association of St. Petersburg, 1998).

  4. Genrich Altshuller, Boris Zlotin, Alla Zusman and Vitaliy Philatov, Searching for New Ideas: From Insight to Methodology (Kishinev: Kartya Moldovenyaska Publishing House, 1989).  In Russian.

  5. Boris Zlotin and Alla Zusman, TRIZ in Progress (Ideation International Inc., 1999).

 


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