Saturday, May 15, 2010

Creativity and Knowing Something About The Problem

I've been tossing this question around this week in another venue. Innovation requires seeing things with new eyes, which can mean that people who haven't looked at a problem may be able to propose solutions the experts haven't thought of. However, if you don't know enough about a problem, the solutions you propose may be boneheaded, even if you're quite a bright person. It may be something someone else has already tried and found inadequate, or it may be that you've left out an important variable.

With its openness and desire to address problems that have been swept under the rug for some long time, the Obama administration is raising the issue in numerous places. It's going to provide solutions in some places and not in others; I suspect that the ratio will be heavily tilted toward the latter.

So I am not as sanguine as Steve Benen about the panel of scientists that Energy Secretary Steven Chu is bringing to Houston to look at BP's problem with that uncontrolled deepwater oil well.
[Richard] Garwin, 82, held a 1991 symposium of academic scientists, explosives experts, firefighters and oilmen to grapple with how to stem oil flows from hundreds of wells Iraq set on fire in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, according to a summary of the event.
I'm not sure about the others' expertise, but everybody and his brother (did anyone else notice that all five are male? still in that box) back in the day was trying to find an innovative solution to those oil well fires. I was involved in one of those efforts because I was working on a possibly relevant technology.

It was obvious to me from the beginning, having done some calculations of amounts of stuff coming out of the wells and amounts of force and other stuff needed to respond, that my technology wouldn't work. The discussions mainly involved people (men) throwing ideas from the tops of their heads - no calculations, no background - that they thought might work. I mostly kept my mouth shut, having noted in earlier such discussions that the king seemed to be developing goosebumps and having been quickly corrected in that misapprehension.

The oil well fires in Kuwait were extinguished by crews from Texas and elsewhere who were experienced in extinguishing oil well fires. None of the stuff the physicists had proposed.

There are a lot of things that aren't well known about BP's current problem, so maybe this group will be able to contribute. There is a balance between knowing something about the problem and knowing so much that you're stuck in the box. But I don't know where it is.

For another example, here are some bright ideas that didn't quite make it.

Update: Oh yeah, here's a new idea: let's nuke the slick. Or more accurately, let's use an underground nuclear blast to crimp the pipe to stop the flow. The Russians claim that they've done it successfully; I would like to see the evidence of that. And they say they placed the nukes 1.5 kilometers underground. So all we'd have to do is drill a hole 1.5 kilometers down, alongside the well that is leaking, emplace a nuke, and set it off. More underwater drilling. Lowering the nuke through water and downhole. Wires attached for detonation. And why not just use conventional explosives?

In contrast, here's a situation where long, detailed, sometimes boring work led to the solution. Plus politics.


Phila said...

Oh yeah, here's a new idea: let's nuke the slick.

I saw that suggested on a Yahoo comment thread a couple of weeks ago. Actually, "suggested" is the wrong word, because it implies less than 100-percent certainty. This guy seemed to be convinced that it was the simplest thing in the world and absolutely foolproof.

I suspect he's one of those people who thinks anything that annoys environmentalists is a good idea, by definition.

twin said...

Very nice blog. I love the concept though. Excellent.