The nested dolls Credit Elena Seraia

Can inventiveness in science be taught?

The case of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving

The global pact between science and society in the 21st century is much different than it was in the middle of the last century. Back then, science enjoyed access for decades to research funding in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge. This outpouring of investment in pure research was triggered by shocking and tantalising demonstrations of science’s might. Society is rightfully expect science be the driving force of technological innovation. This leads to the question: how can we invent more efficiently? And can the art of inventiveness be taught?

If anything is to be taught, especially art, we would naturally assume that it is best to be done during childhood. I recall an amusing personal story. When I was about ten years old–then, a big fan of magazines about technology for kids–I wrote a letter to the editors of the Junior Technicist magazine describing my invention. It was a car with electric engines including generators that would charge the batteries.

Today, this combination may inspire thoughts about hybrid cars. But at the time, the answer from the editors correctly pointed out that when I start learning physics at school, I will learn about the law of energy conservation and understand that my “car” would not run. Many of us can, perhaps, recall similar stories of childhood inventiveness. But we can also ask if one can efficiently teach inventiveness to educated adults; the very same people who know that the flight of fantasy is limited by the laws of physics.

I came across a similar question when, having come from Stanford to Oxford, I was looking for ways to teach inventiveness to our graduate students and researchers. A then re-discovered the so-called TRIZ methodology–also known as the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. This is an approach I read about during childhood but then completely forgot about for many decades.

TRIZ was developed in the Soviet Union in the mid of last century. Interestingly, it is now the leading inventiveness tool in engineering world. Indeed, it is now considered the bedrock of innovation at Samsung and “an obligatory skill set if you want to advance within Samsung.” Being amazed how many companies in the industrial world use TRIZ, I was also shocked by realisation that practically none of my scientific colleagues around the world knew about existence of this method of inventiveness!

In brief, TRIZ can indeed be helpful for science. And that is because of its inventive principles and the approaches of finding physical contradictions, which can build bridges of understanding between different scientific disciplines. But this approach is also interesting because by taking ourselves through the process of creation of TRIZ, we can teach inventiveness in science!

Andrei Seryi

Andrei is the director of John Adams Institute for Accelerator Science at the University of Oxford, UK, and the author of recently published book “Unifying Physics of Accelerators, Lasers and Plasma”, which connects the three area of science via the industrial methodology of inventiveness, and encourage and guides the reader through proactive development of TRIZ method for science.

Illustration:

The nested doll (matryoshka) shown together with the schematics of laser pulses profiles used in the Stimulated Emission Depletion Microscopy (STED, which led Stefan W. Hell to receive the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), where the TRIZ inventive principles of the nested doll and of the system/anti-system can be seen.

Illustration credit: Elena Seraia

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