Solving Scientific Problems
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)
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
- 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
- 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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
In addition to solving specific scientific problems, we continued working in
the following areas:
- Refining techniques related to the application of TRIZ tools to
- 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.
- 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.
- Solving Scientific Problems (Kishinev: STC Progress in association with Kartya
Moldovenyaska, 1991). In Russian.
- Volyuslav Mitrofanov, From Manufacturing Defect to Scientific
Discovery (St. Petersburg: TRIZ Association of St. Petersburg,
- 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.
- Boris Zlotin and Alla Zusman, TRIZ in Progress
(Ideation International Inc., 1999).