Wired, in the January 2010 article, The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, makes the usual observation that successes in research often emerge from initial failures (example: astrophysicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson couldn't get rid of the noise in their radio survey of the Milky Way, only later to find that they'd discovered echoes of the Big Bang).
The point that struck me is a pattern for turning failures into success: "The best way to solve a problem? Try explaining it to somebody outside your field."
Author Jonah Lehrer reports University of Toronto lab director Kevin Dunbar's findings that "most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings" and that a diverse lab -- with representives of multiple disciplines -- can be more effective at problem-solving than a group of researchers all having the same training. (Penzias' and Wilson's insight came from a casual conversation with nuclear physicist Robert Dicke.)
EMC's locally networked approach to research -- bringing together participants of multiple business units and university researchers -- fits very much this cross-disciplinary paradigm.
Prof. Busnaina's recent lecture is a good example of the benefits of these kinds of conversations. Although the research area is nanotechnology, his problem-solving paradigms, presented at a high level, encourage creativity in other system design patterns.
I was especially impressed with the solution he shared to the problem of toggling a carbon nanotube switch between two positions, for instance to store a bit.
In previous approaches, a strand of nanotube material would be toggled between the two positions by applying a voltage to one of two circuits, one below and the other above the strand. When a small voltage is applied to the circuit below the strand, the strand is pulled down toward the circuit, and remains there after the voltage is removed. To pull the strand up again, however, would require a much larger voltage across the circuit above the strand, partly because the strand is now further away from that circuit, and also presumably because the strand is “locked” in position. (My lack of precision on these terms illustrates Dunbar’s point: As a non-expert, I need to communicate in metaphors.)
Busnaina’s solution is based on a simple motivation: If pulling a strand down is easier than pulling it back up, is there a way to toggle the switch by pulling down two different ways? The answer is yes: If the strand is sits across the two circuits rather than between them, and rides over a divider between the circuits, then toggling is just a matter of activating one circuit or the other. When a small voltage is applied across the first circuit, the strand is pulled down to that circuit and away from the second. The pulling away is mechanical not electrical which is why it is easier than in previous approaches. Similarly, when a small voltage is applied across the second circuit, the strand is pulled down to that circuit and away from the first.
I'm not sure to what extent Busnaina explaining these things to people outside his field last week helped him solve further problems. Having it explained to me, though, may well help me solve other problems in the future. I’m looking forward to finding the next problem closer to my own research areas that can be solved by putting together two easy operations rather than an easy one and a hard one.