6 September 2018 It's not possible.

When I give an on-site 2-day training course on something like adhesion science, I make sure that:

  1. Everyone knows that I positively prefer being interrupted and asked to apply what I've just said to a specific problem of interest to them;
  2. If I've missed out on some science that is important to them (I can't be expected to know everything) then I will fill in the gaps in the evening or after my visit, at no extra charge; and
  3. The final half day is reserved for small group meetings on specific topics where we work together to apply the principles

In discussions I also tend to classify problems as:

  1. Trivial - meaning that the theory tells you exactly how to solve them
  2. Easy - meaning lots of hard work. The laws of physics are with you, there's good science showing you the general direction but precise numbers are impossible, but you'll get there in the end
  3. Impossible - meaning that the laws of physics are against you: things like perpetual motion, turning base metal into gold.

I now have a new class: "Not possible". And this is a very interesting class, as I learned yesterday during the final half day of an on-site adhesion science course.

I'd been given the problem a few days in advance. It was in an area of technology about which I knew almost nothing, but it was easy to download a few papers to get the general idea. They could already do what everyone else could do. The question was whether they could do something that no one could.

This sort of "variation of a product in a well-known field" new product is usually easy to sort into one of my classes. And I had to tell them that it was in the "impossible" class, because the science said so (a good reason) and, not coincidentally, if such a desirable new product (green, low VOC, low energy) could have been developed, someone would have done it by now (not a great reason, but at least plausible). I then had to explain why it was impossible.

As always, the product requirements were complex and it was tempting to wander around the various aspects. But there was a core aspect that meant the whole idea could not work. So I took them step-by-step through this and they gradually saw why impossibility was likely. There was still some wiggle-room and I had to find a key formula. I knew it was in one of my eBooks so I brought the relevant page onto the video screen so we could discuss it. However, one of the team spotted a sentence I'd added about an extra factor not included in the formula. It was a sentence I'd added for intellectual completeness but which was irrelevant to most situations, and which I'd forgotten about. She pointed out that in this specific situation, that approach might work. She thought some more and pointed out that one of the components that would have to be added to address some other aspects of the formulation might do the job.

We all stopped and looked at each other. That fresh insight from a seemingly irrelevant sentence next to a formula that proved the whole thing couldn't work, had opened up a whole new formulation approach to an "impossible" product. The combined knowledge of the team then rapidly produced a rather convincing set of inter-related ideas. In just a few minutes we had gone from "not possible" to a potential $multi-million new product.

What have I learned from this?

I've learned that there really is a difference between "impossible" and "not possible". And each of these is different from "I know it won't work, because it's never worked in the past and anyway 'they' would have developed it some time ago". This "not possible" class requires a step-by-step proof of why the laws of physics are against you. Very often, by going over those steps, and by considering variants, everyone ends up agreeing that it's just not going to work. Killing a seemingly good idea via an evidence trail and logic is far better than allowing a hopeless idea to absorb resources that could have been devoted to a different project. There's always a risk of a wrong negative, that's a decision that someone has to take. With the evidence chain, if a fresh mind comes to it, they can see why the negative conclusion was reached. If they have new ideas or new knowledge then maybe the negative can be switched to a positive.

What I've really learned is that the "science-based formulation" approach was alive and well in this case. One scientist (me) pointing out the logical reasons for failure, another scientist (her) finding a flaw in the logical chain. Without my clear "it's not possible and here are the reasons", we would never have reached the point where a creative scientist could see something that I was missing. That's the joy of science.