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):
"Very often young promising scientists after publishing one or two interesting papers suddenly fall silent. In a few years it turns out that their names are forgotten forever, as the names of ex-sports champions.
Pathetic is a human life, in which a short period of bloom gives way to the endless string of dull, monotonous days. If a mathematician wants to avoid this fate, if he wants his career of a scientist not to become a slow way down, he should use the heyday of his creativity for searching such an unknown area of science or of new problems which, with sufficient internal content, and sufficient real value, would provide him the opportunity to work productively in the chosen direction throughout life." 1
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:
Later Altshuller tried to give suggestions based on TRIZ. I will evaluate the validity of one of them in a separate paper.
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:
"After one or two promising papers many young mathematicians who have shown signs of ability sink into that very same limbo, which surrounds yesterday's sports heores.
Yet it is not bearable to contemplate a brief distinction and burgeoning of activity, which is to be followed by a lifetime of boredom. If the career of a mathematician is to be anything but an anti-climactic one, he must devote this brief springtime of top creative ability to the discovery of new fields and new problems, of such richness and compelling character that he can scarcely exhaust them in his lifetime."