How to be ahead of your time in science

Y. B. Karasik,
Thoughts Guiding Systems Corp.,
Ottawa, Canada.
e-mail:karasik@sympatico.ca

Finding a research area where nobody worked yet is very difficult. But importance of finding such an area for young researchers is hard to overestimate. Here is what Norbert Wiener wrote in this regard in his book "I am a mathematician" (Doubleday & Company, New York, 1956, p.42):

Unfortunately, Norbert Wiener did not suggest means of finding such areas. Altshuller also realized the importance of finding new research areas that would allow one to get ahead of time and ahead of others and work productively throughout life and remain unchallenged leader in the area. But in stark contrast to Wiener he was trying to give suggestions on how to accomplish this.

Once he told me the following story.

Shapiro was looking for a research area, which would yield great results. Altshuller suggested him to start working on space navigation. His rationale was this. Ballistic rockets just appeared. (Apparently he spoke of the late 1940s.) It was clear to him that space flights were just a matter of time. But flying to planets and stars would require a new means of navigation. How to navigate in space ? There were no papers or books on the subject. No means of space navigation were yet proposed as there was no need in them yet.
- Start working on it now and by the time the means of space navigation become necessary you would become the only authority in the field, - Altshuller allegedly suggested to Shapiro.

But Shapiro disregarded his advice and achieved nothing in science.

A method of finding new perspective areas of research that can be gleaned from this story is this:

  1. Identify the emerging break-through technology;
  2. Identify the opportunities it will open up and the knowledge that would be required to realize these opportunities;
  3. Start working on getting this knowledge in advance, before it becomes necessary, and before others realized it.

Later Altshuller tried to give suggestions based on TRIZ. I will evaluate the validity of one of them in a separate paper.


Footnotes:

1 These are not exactly Wiener's phrases but their translation from English into Russian and then back into English, which, surprisingly, resulted in amplification of their meaning. That is why I decided to quote the double translation rather than the original lines, which were as follows: