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Volume 17, Issue 26;   June 28, 2017: Tackling Hard Problems: I

Tackling Hard Problems: I

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Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missions

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) representation of a Mars base. To help sustain expeditionary crews on Mars, experiments are underway to use Martian soil and subsurface ice to make breathable oxygen. Image courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Some problems have no evident solutions. We set them aside for now and move on to something else where we believe we can make progress, saying, "We can come back to that later, or maybe there's another way altogether." I collected a number of suggestions for difficult problems years ago, but there's one method I use that somehow escaped that catalog. I call it "Right-To-Left Thinking."

Because lines of text in my native language, English, are written left-to-right, and because the lines are usually arranged top-down, I tend to make diagrams with a left-to-right/top-down general direction of flow. For me, then, right-to-left is a reverse of my normal pattern. That might be why it helps me find novel solutions, because it compels me to look at things differently. If your primary written language flows in some other direction, you'll want to make appropriate adjustments to this method to get the same effect.

To show how it works for me, I'll apply it to a really difficult problem: establishing a Mars colony. I have no expertise in that area, so it's unlikely that any conclusions I develop here will be useful for the Mars colony problem. What follows is just an illustration of Right-To-Left Thinking.

Begin with the objective
Begin by imagining that we've reached the objective already, and write down a representation of the objective on the ?right-hand? edge of a big sheet of paper (or whatever surface you're using), in words or sketches. Try to capture some of the properties of the objective, even if we don't yet know how to reach it, focusing on some of the most difficult parts of the problem.
For the Mars Colony, three of the more difficult problems are oxygen supply, water supply, and protection from radiation. They're difficult because they probably involve large masses of material, and transporting those masses from Earth is impractical.
Develop some pre-objectives
With the objective in mind,Begin by imagining that we've
reached the objective already, and
ask, "How would we have solved it?"
ask, "If we could reach the objective, what would we have accomplished or obtained to get there?" It might include material things, or concepts or knowedge we now lack. These items are our pre-objectives. Write them all down just to the ?left? of where we wrote the properties of the objective. (That's why I call this method "Right-To-Left Thinking")
For the Mars Colony, if we can't send water and oxygen from Earth, we'll have to find them or produce them on Mars. We do know that subsurface ice is present. We can break down that water to harvest oxygen. Martian soil can provide radiation shielding, either as a layer on top of colonial structures, or by excavating to build structures under the surface. Caves or lava tubes are also possibilities.

Next time, we'll continue developing pre-objectives, and turn our attention to the other edge of the paper where we begin working on the starting point of the problem solution.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Tackling Hard Problems: II  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Children playing a computer gameComing July 18: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: III
Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
Office equipment — or is it office toys?And on July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.

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