Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Science Reviewed

Science Reviewed

| On 04, May 2000

Science Reviewed

By Graham Rawlinson and David Straker

This article is a partially edited selection of two chapters in the book, “How to Invent Almost Anything”, produced by Changemaker Publications and written by Graham Rawlinson of Next Step Associates and David Straker, Innovation and Quality Consultant with Agilent.

Review Science? Why do that? Well, it is our experience that a major difficulty people have with implementing TRIZ is the way that scientific thinking is represented in the problem you have.

As it is the way it is represented that is the problem, our book deals with the psychology of innovation and the issues of thinking in a scientific way that relates to the design process.

Science can be dreary stuff, especially when you get into the strict rules that say ‘you can do this but you cannot do that.’ In inventing, we do not like the word ‘cannot’, so our look at science is more about taking oblique, irreverent and sometimes downright unscientific views on it.

But why? Should we not use science as it is? After all, many great minds have worked for many years on giving us a sound set of rules. The answer is yes and no. Yes, science is extremely useful but, as we shall say again, you do not have to be a scientist to invent things with science. And furthermore, blindly accepting what you are given is not a sound basis for inventing new futures for the world.

Consequently, the science chapters are about looking at science and thinking differently. We start from some fairly deep fundamentals (although we stay firmly outside of the frightening world of quantum mechanics!) and then take an unusual peek at a scientific principle (friction) before attacking some everyday odds and ends from a new science point of view.

We hope you will find our review of interest and value. TRIZ is developing and our thoughts are developing – all comments welcome!

A Simple Science

To invent physical things, it is helpful to know a little bit of science. Only a little bit? It would be reasonable to assume that that invention requires knowledge which is at the cutting edge of scientific advances or is at least degree-level. Occasionally this is true, but for many very useful and valuable inventions, it is not. In fact many great inventions were created by people who were working outside their original domain of knowledge. The experts in the field would have complained that these people were not real scientists and that they were probably not even practising real science. Maybe they were thinking a different kind of science! And if they are having fun at the same time, perhaps they could be accused of practising funscience. Fancy that.

Although some scientists would like you to believe otherwise, science is really quite a simple thing, especially if we start from the basic stuff. Going back to first principles gives us a number of advantages. Firstly, by being able to step back from existing bodies of knowledge, we can avoid being trapped by them. Secondly, the deeper level of understanding that working with fundamentals gives us enables us to invent on a more subtle and pervasive level. Last, but not least, basic science is easier to understand than the many complexities that have been built on top of it. Keeping it simple enables you to ask similar simple questions for many different situations. And simple questions are often the stimulus for new thinking.

So if you are a scientist, be prepared to forget some of your training. Unlearning can be more difficult than learning, but it is often very helpful to be able to look at things with fresh eyes. Inspiration can be found all around us, and nature is a rich, though not infinite source. We will be considering some of natures ideas and limitations in some of the sections below.

What is science?

A lot of science is presented as being about numbers. How strong is this bar of metal? How far away is this planet? How fast is the car going? Of course, numbers are important when you make something, because the parts need to be of the right size, strength and weight and so on, but numbers are not very helpful in the early stages of inventing.

To invent, it is best to put the idea of numbers to one side (which should please those who like science but hate the mathematics!) If you have a good, inventive design then it is surprisingly easy to find someone who can do the numbers for you, unless it is extremely complex or very, very new science.

Facts are also things you might want to park somewhere. Scientific facts are used to constrain and restrain, saying why you should not be doing things. Scientific facts define the boundaries, the limits of a system of knowledge. To invent, you must go beyond limits and shatter existing assumptions.

For inventing it is best to think of science as a process of asking questions. As the great physicist Niels Bohr said, “Everything I utter must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question.” To ask a question, think carefully about the models, theories, frameworks or patterns you are using to understand both the current problem and the potential solution, then question any and all of these. Questioning highlights what you do not know, and what you do not know is an opportunity, waiting for discovery and invention.

Science can also be viewed as simply being about identifying the patterns in the universe and codifying these into models and equations. If you can see patterns that nobody else has seen, you have invented a new science! Tools for inventing are process tools for working with patterns. These process tools provide individual activities and whole phases of action you can use to go from an initial idea to a complete invention.

Although tools are very useful, the best scientists do not let their process tools get in the way of open enquiry as they use both structured and unstructured methods of investigation and development. When they see potential winning patterns, then like chess grandmasters, they redouble their efforts to find even better patterns.

At its most simple level, science can be viewed in terms of energy (including forces), matter, space and time. In this chapter, we will look at these factors and start to think about how they can be used in inventing.

Science and energy

At the most basic level of science, there is energy, which we can either store or use. The most fundamental storage of energy is matter, as Einstein identified in his famous equation E=mc2, where E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. It does not take much material to create a very big bang. Energy moves through a medium (such as magnetic or electric fields) in waves.

Fig.1 Energy storage and use by wave-matter conversion

We can also store energy by position, such as the potential energy gained when I put a can on a shelf. Energy can be stored as a potential where there are fundamental forces that attract or repel objects, as in Fig. 2. The attraction that holds the can on the shelf is, of course, between the earth and the can. The energy is stored in the distortion of the gravitational field! So now you know!

Fig. 2 Energy storage and use by movement

We cannot see stored energy, and it only becomes apparent when we use it, where it can be sensed in terms of movement, heat, light and the effects of electricity and magnetism. We can simplify these into two forms: movement and waves. Heat comes from the movement of atoms, whilst light, electricity and magnetism are all forms of electromagnetic radiation.

Although it seems that energy is used, this is not really true. When stored energy is used, it does not disappear, it is simply converted from one form of energy to another, and much inventing goes on around this conversion. When I start my car, I want the fuel to be converted into direct movement, not heat and sound (which is vibration of molecules), although it would not matter if intermediate forms of energy are used: it is the leakage of these that causes the problem. If we could convert energy efficiently, we would make life easier and also be more ecologically sound.

Inventing with energy

To invent with energy, you can start by taking the energy situation in your problem and breaking it down to find the attributes. Fig. 3 does some of this breaking down for different forms of energy. Let us consider some of the aspects of this diagram (which deliberately decomposes in different ways):

The long list from ‘light’ shows some attributes of light, which can be changed. For example if increasing light in a room, you could increase reflection with more metallic surfaces.

The long breakdown chain from ‘electromagnetic’ leads to specific elements that can be changed, for example sunglasses could work by using an optical bandpass filter to select only specific frequencies.

Stored energy is linked to force. Although they are not strictly identical, imagine holding a spring squeezed in. The energy stored is felt as a force. Where you need a force, think about how you can input some energy and then hold it in place.

Energy can be combined with other elements of simple science: the use of energy over time is work (so you can change work by changing energy or time).

Fig.2 Energy breakdown

We can play with energy by taking any of the attributes, storage methods or decomposed detail, and changing them in some way. We can change energy from one form to another, or maybe prevent the energy from converting or escaping. In any situation, ask questions like, ’Where is the energy? What is it doing? Where is it going? How can I change these?’ Fig. 4 offers some challenges to turn play into invention.

Fig. 3 Playing with energy

Science and force

A large part of science, (and particularly in areas where inventing is significant) is about the use of energy in interaction between objects, whether it is atoms within a bending bar or friction between the bar and the table on which it is placed. How many forces do you think can act between two objects? In fact there are only four, as in Fig. 5, and even better, two of them are probably not available for you to change, leaving two forces available for simple scientific inventing, electromagnetic and gravity (which we cannot change except by changing the mass of things so the main one we use is electromagnetic).

Fig.4 Four forces

Strong and weak nuclear forces

The Strong nuclear force is the strongest force and binds the central parts of an atom together (the protons and neutrons). The Weak nuclear force is weaker than the electromagnetic force but stronger than gravity! It effects things inside the atom only and its role is really at the level of quantum physics, (by that we mean complex and small!). Fortunately, for both Strong and Weak forces, their effect is just about zero beyond the distance of the width of an atom so unless you are going to make some pretty big nuclear devices you probably will not be changing these. Except for physicists, these forces can be forgotten about when inventing.


Gravity is more than the downward pull of bodies towards the earth, as all bodies attract one another. It is also a very weak force for small or distant bodies, although we do not think about gravity as being weak because we can feel it in our bodies and things we pick up may feel heavy. At a long distance it is the greatest force. For example, there is massive electrical activity in the sun which does not attract metal on earth anywhere near as much as the sun’s gravitational pull.

Gravitational attraction and consequent force is connected with size, which is why the Earth is pulled by the Sun, and distance, which is why the Moon is held in by the Earth and is not pulled away by the Sun. By the time we get down to the size of people and inventions, the force is much smaller.

The bottom line is that although gravity may be a consideration for your inventions, you cannot change it (although as an example of how assumptions can always be challenged, at the time of writing, research is going on into the use of gyroscopes that change their weight when rotating very fast. Perhaps one day we will be able to invent with gravitational forces.)

Where gravitational effects can be played with is in the mass of items. Mass can be changed with different materials, shapes and construction methods such as the judicious use of holes.

Electromagnetic forces

Electromagnetic forces are not just about wires: they are also about how one object holds on to another. Electromagnetic forces are familiar to anyone who has rubbed a balloon on their pullover and stuck it to the ceiling. These are forces that we can play with, and we will discuss them later on.

We are surrounded by electromagnetic fields, which affect how things are attracted or repulsed. These forces also bind atoms and molecules together, and in our world of physical things it is only the electromagnetic forces that count.

When materials are pushed against one another they resist the push through the electromagnetic repulsion in the atoms and molecules. As you push on a material the fields are being pushed together and they resist. Every object resting on another is distorting it by displacing molecules, usually only very slightly. No material is absolutely rigid because it could not be. The force back has to be created by something and that force is electromagnetic! When the force is removed, the material, if it has been elastically distorted only, will spring back to shape.

In chemical bonding, the electrons in the shells of the atoms are shared, which creates a fair to very strong bond, but it is still an electromagnetic force. The glue that sticks your fingers together is the glue of electromagnetism!

When any two objects are placed in contact with one another, the electromagnetic fields of the atoms at the surface of contact will interact with one another, typically resulting in some degree of attraction. A similar attractive effect occurs when molecules are mixed or in solution, such as the way water molecules bonded loosely with salt to make a saline solution.

Inventing with forces

Inventing with forces often has to do with either trying to make things stick together or trying to separate them. Many large businesses are built on how things stick together, not only around adhesives, but also in such diverse subjects as paint and furniture. 3M, for example, uses bonding inventions for everything from sandpaper to Post-it Notes. Modern aeroplanes are largely stuck together with glue, which help make the plane much more rigid than if nuts and bolts had been used.

The bonds that can be played with include the attachment of electrons to atoms, the attraction of molecules to one another within a single substance and the interaction of different substances when brought together. Electronic, chemical, material and mechanical inventions all deal with bonding forces to different degrees.

Electromagnetic forces are involved in all the bonding, pushing and pulling that goes on between atoms and materials, whether they are solid or liquid or gaseous. The invention battleground is the electromagnetic field! Even light, which as a photon is the smallest constituent of an electromagnetic field. In fact, in quantum physics, the force of electromagnetism is created by the exchange of photons, though not at the wavelength we see.

Inventing with forces at the most fundamental level means thinking about the electromagnetic effects. We can also think about ways to apply forces at higher levels, such as with hammers or clamps. We can change the energy source, for example using electrical or chemical methods. After constant problems with compressed air for vehicle airbags, a chemical explosion was found to be simpler, cheaper and more reliable.

If we combine force with other aspects of energy, matter, space and time, we can find other ways to use the force. Applying the force over a period of time will require a greater energy reserve. Pulsing the energy as in a jack-hammer can be very powerful. The required force may be reduced if the area of effect is reduced, as with a knife blade or the tines of a fork.

To play with forces, think about the different aspects of the force, how you can change them, how you can combine them with other things. Vary the source, time, area, location, direction and more. Use springs and levers, explosions and attacks. Change push into pull and press into pulse. Just playing and experimenting can reveal useful surprises!

Fig. 5 Playing with forces

Science and matter

Matter means material, the stuff from which we make our physical inventions. This is an area in which nature has done many experiments and where we can find many inspirations (in fact, copying nature has been given a name: bionics). For example, Alexander Graham Bell used the human ear as a model for the telephone and principles of frog’s eyes were used in an aircraft altitude indicator.

Atomic thinking

A very basic way of inventing with matter is to think of what is happening to the atoms and molecules. A nice and unscientific way of viewing atoms is as little sticky balls, which usually like first to stick to one another. Crystals stick in nice patterns, but mostly the sticking is fairly untidy and atoms will slide about as the material is flexed. In liquids and gases, of course, the atoms move about even more.

One of the interesting things that happens with atoms is at the surface or edge of things. Here, they only have around half the normal number of similar atoms to stick to, which tends to make them panic somewhat. This can result in strange surface effects such as microscopic deformations or bonding to what ever is next to it (this is how adhesives work). Surface atoms are also exposed to attack by external atoms and energies. The surface atoms will even sometimes shake free of the parent material and float away (as in evaporation) or the may be stolen away by more attractive external atoms or simply knocked off by the odd passing molecule of water of air or even a bird’s foot! When this happens, energies that are released can exacerbate the situation (or may be utilised by canny inventors!).

Molecules act like big atoms, but add to the complexity of the situation as they can now take different shapes, such as long thin molecules that can form flexible but strong fibres. They also can break up when they meet other molecules that react with them, or are exposed to energy sources such as ultra-violet radiation.

Mass and density

Matter has mass, but not weight, as weight is an effect of gravity (in space, things are weightless, but their mass is unchanged). Weight is also a force and hence has a direction. For most purposes, we do not need to differentiate between mass and weight, but it is still worth knowing the difference.

Matter has density, which may be consistent through the object or may vary thought it. This is an area where we have a greater range of options than nature: our flesh and internal organs are made up of a very similar sort of flexible material, whilst bones and teeth are similar types of calciferous substances. A result of this is that most natural bodies end up with a fairly standard density.

In inventions, the weight need not be proportional to size, as we have a much wider range of options in the materials we use.

Flexibility and rigidity

Nature is, on the whole, pretty floppy. It achieves rigidity in the skeletons of its structures, but mostly it finds flexibility a more useful proposition for many purposes. The human world, on the other hand, is full of rigid structures. When nature puts rigidity on the outside, as with the crab’s shell, it also limits the ability of its inhabitant to grow (in fact, the only natural shape that allows ongoing growth is the snail’s spiral shell). We are not constricted by such concerns.

When you need flatness, it is a dilemma if you also want lightness and rigidity. Nature overcomes this effect in several ways, for example when it wants to keep a leaf open. Simple curvature quickly makes a flat item more rigid. Solid veins on the underside of the leaf may hold it open. Folded ridges also work, for example where a fold down the middle also helps long thin leaves. Insect wings use all three principles for unbeatable lightness and strength.

Fig. 6 Achieving rigidity in a light structure

People generally design things to be rigid and unmoving, whilst nature tends to design things to bend, but not break. Rigidity in structures leads to hot spots of high internal forces and vulnerability to external forces. With careful design, the structure may be allowed to move in a way that shifts forces, safely channelling them into the ground and away from weak points. Thus earthquake-proofed buildings can move, suspension on vehicles absorb much of the bumping that plagued earlier rigid carriages. Veterinarian John Dunlop used the flexibility of a rubber hose to ease the ride of his child’s cycle and thus invented the pneumatic tyre.

As mankind continues to copy nature in our inventions, we are gradually adopting more flexibility. For example, in the chilly future of smart weapons, self-steering bullets use contracting tendons to change the direction of the little nosecone to ensure the bullet hits its mark.

Inventing with matter

Notice how we categories objects in terms of how they respond to external forces and energies: things can be dense or non-dense, hard or soft, rigid or flexible, brittle or ductile, opaque or transparent, and so on. What are the properties of the materials you are using? How could they be changed? What properties would be more desirable? Use and extend Fig. 8 to help this task.

Fig. 7 Thinking about matter

When inventing with matter, also think about the forces and energies around your invention, such as light, heat, gravity and magnetism. How do these affect things? How can you change the materials used to eliminate undesirable effects? How materials be used to take advantage of these effects?

A useful viewpoint is often to zoom into the atomic or molecular level and ask what is happening here. How are the bonding relationships changing? What is happening at the surface? Consider the effects between molecules, between atoms and even within atoms. Are electrons being pulled away by electrostatic or electromagnetic effects? Are chemical energies being released or absorbed? What reactions are occurring?

Play with your materials. Having fun is a serious business. Just trying things can lead to surprising results. Use half-formed and even random ideas to see what happens.

Fig. 8 Playing with materials

Science and space

Things use space in different ways. Something with many spikes uses space differently to something with a smooth surface. A solid object uses space differently to a hollow object. The gaps and empty spaces in things can be there to make something lighter (consider all the holes in a chair) or to enable things to fit together (the hole in a nut is designed so a screw will fit snugly into it).


Think about the overall shape of your invention. Why is it that way? Nature, again, is a rich source of stimulation and ideas about shape, from the hooks on burrs to the hollow bones and feathers of birds.

Shape has several functions. Firstly, shape connects. The body of a car serves to hold together all of its parts. Shape also contains and separates, protecting what is inside or outside from one another’s adverse effects. A house is shaped to protect its contents from the weather, to contain the heat and with separate rooms, each with a different use. Shape interfaces with other shapes, like a nut and bolt fitting together or a bayonet shaped to impale the human body (not all shapes are good).

Shape may have aesthetic functions, too. What makes a Ferrari more attractive than a Ford? Much of this is to do with shape and the associations we have with it. Curves, especially in the right proportion, may remind us of the human form. Sharp angles and unusual shapes may catch our eye and appeal to our sense of novelty.

A space invention

Let us use some of the analytical inventing from Chapter 1 whilst keeping in mind the basic principles of inventing with matter, space and shape.

An aeroplane has wheels and tyres. What is the purpose of the tyre? When the aeroplane is taking off you want grip, but not much, to steer it at low speeds. After a certain speed the engines will send you where they want to send you.

When the plane is landing, then much more grip is needed to help slow down the aeroplane from very high air-speeds. So, I want low grip for take off and high grip for landing. I can use an ABS system for landing but this may add weight. Can I get grip with little or no extra weight?

The next level of questioning is ‘Why does the tyre grip the runway?’ Well, it depends in part on the contact between the tyre molecules and the runway surface. This is affected by how much tyre is touching the runway. So maybe I can have a lot of contact on landing and little on take off.

How can I change how much tyre touches the runway? By changing the shape of the tyre. How can I change the shape of the tyre? By changing the pressure in the tyre or through squeezing of the tyre, maybe with the rim/hub.


Things can be large and small and anywhere in between, although in any application there tend to be breakpoints and viable ranges along the scale from microscopic to massive.

When size increases, volume and surface area do not change at the same rate. Double dimensions and the volume goes up by a factor of eight. At a constant density, this equates to bigger meaning much heavier. It also means greater heat insulation and retention as heat is lost from the surface, and a deep core will only change its temperature slowly.

In the animal kingdom, it is probably not a coincidence that humans are about half way along the scale. Small animals find it easier to jump, fall, fly and hide, whilst larger animals can defeat predators and lose less heat (and so need to eat less for their size). In the middle, we get the best of both worlds.

In the fight against gravity, small wins. A small insect falls more slowly and can rise more easily. The only problem that it faces is going forward: small wings need to fight hard against air resistance. Birds have found the best balance with longer wings and hollow bones.

Flight is an example where mimicking nature is not necessarily the best answer. Years of flapping-wing machines proved fruitless. The Wright brothers successfully took to the air by using large and doubled-up wings to get lift and a powered propeller to get the extra forward speed needed to get sufficient lift for the additional weight. Birds learned long ago the balance point between size and flapping flight. It took man’s ingenuity to overcome the problem of size by turning it into an advantage: big wings mean lots of lift.

Boundaries and corners

Boundaries define things. They exist where one thing stops and another thing begins. The boundary is where interactions occur between the two things, such as electrolysis, oxidisation, refraction and other effects. Interactions may involve temperature, physical force, light, chemical reaction or any other energy system. Larger boundaries usually lead to larger interactive effects, such as when heat transfer is increased with the greater surface area of a heat exchanger’s fins.

The boundary may have different types of surface texture, being rough, smooth, hairy, feathery, jagged, and so on. Nature is pretty good at textures, most of which have highly evolved purposes, from the insulation of hair or feathers to the sharpness of the different kinds of teeth. We often copy these effects in our inventions, from the hollow fibres of insulating materials to grinding and cutting shapes.

Humans like flat surfaces and they appear everywhere in our world, but nature has little use for flatness as it is a very weak shape. If you compress a flat shape, it will either bend or break. We also like sharp corners, which nature avoids as it knows that this is a point of weakness. Squeeze a folded item and it will collapse and possibly fracture along the fold, especially if the fold has a sharp, clean edge. Put a smooth fairing into the corner and its strength will increase significantly.

Fig. 9 Strengthening corners

Inventing in space

When inventing with space, consider how space could be added to or taken away from your device. How will space changes affect its strength? How will it affect its aesthetic qualities? Architects and top designers make great use of space to create elegance and style, for which they can charge high fees. Quite literally, they are selling nothing (although it is a rather nice nothing).

Many shapes are as they are because it is easy to make them that way, rather than because of how they behave. Edges are straight because it is easy to cut straight edges. Holes are round because it is easy to drill round holes. Plates are round because of the rotation of the potter’s wheel. A simple way to invent is to look at the things around you and ask why they are shaped that way. Is it is because it was easy to make it that way or because works best that way?

Why is a cup shaped like it is? The edge of the cup from which we drink is round. Beyond the ease of manufacture and the way that this fits our mouth quite well, this is also a good shape for controlling the flow rate of the liquid we are drinking. To get more flow we simply widen our mouths and the flow rate increases quite quickly. So we can use this shape to drink just a little sip or to take big gulps. If you have ever drunk from square glasses you will realise how nice and friendly the round shape is!

Fig. 10 Inventing in space

Many, many, many inventions are simply about changing the shape of things to make them do what they do better. Although the basic idea may be to change the shape, the critical part of the invention may well be in the manufacturing process, such as in new milling methods and tools to cut shapes more accurately. The ongoing improvements in robotics, use of materials and other manufacturing system all give opportunities to make things differently or more cheaply and thus add greater value to the finished product.

If, when examining an item, you already have the best shape, you can still invent by asking yourself whether, if it was a different shape, it could be used for additional functions. For example, you could shape the end of a key to be like a screwdriver blade. This might result in the problem of the key cutting holes in your pocket, but rather than reject the whole idea this simply becomes the next target for innovation.

Play with space. Look at it as negative matter: how do the spaces between the shapes alter things? Create virtual space using glass or other transparent and translucent materials. Change the shape of the space and the space around the shape. Move around the space: how do things appear from different perspectives? Zoom in and out, up and down, around and within. See it from your customers’ viewpoint: what does space mean to them? If you are designing books or websites, look at the balance of white space to text and pictures. Make nothing a tool in your invention kit.

Fig. 11 Playing with space

Science and time

Surely time is fixed? It would seem that we cannot change time unless we are thinking about relativity and make time go slower by moving faster. Time is a much-ignored resource in inventing, yet is one of our most precious commodities. Rich or poor, we all have a similarly short span, and the inventions around us can help or hinder us from making the best of that period.

When things happen, they do so in defined order, which we can change. Many designs are put together as static models before we set them going. We can design in new ways by asking ourselves if some of the functionality (this word is important and we will use it a lot) can be delivered at different times. In computers, magnetic tape allows us to store a lot of information cheaply, but it is a serial device. Even hard discs and CD-ROMs are have latency and seek-time, delaying the processor’s request for data. The day that someone invents a static method of storage that is just as cheap, dense and robust, will be the day that moving storage will begin to die out.

We might want to use something at a given time, but the current situation prevents us from doing so. Consider drinking a cup of tea or coffee. You may want to drink it right away, but it is too hot, or you may want to drink it later, but it has gone cold. Now imagine that you could balance out those two, for example using some form of heat storage or exchange that removes excess heat from the delivered liquid when you tip the cup and puts it back in later. Perhaps you could do this by running the liquid over heat-absorbing surfaces as the cup is tipped, and returning the stored heat later on into the liquid once it has cooled down.

Inventing with time

To invent with time, build on Fig. 13 to discover how time affects what we do and where we can improve the quality of people’s lives through letting them make better use of their time. You can change the order in which things happen, how they relate over time, when they start and stop and whether they happen at all.

What happens when you are watching a television program and the phone rings? You have two things that you want to do at the same time. Could you link the phone to the video system, so picking up the phone mutes the TV sound and starts the video recorder? What if the TV could tell the phone to tell the person to call back in 40 minutes when the show finished?

Fig.12 Inventing with time

Play with time. Can you speed up time or slow it down? Many people would pay handsomely for even the perception of changing time. I would like waiting in queues to speed up and eating chocolate to go very slowly. Could you give me something interesting to do while waiting? How could you change the composition of food to make the taste linger longer?

Think about fantasies and visions. What would an ideal world look like in ten, twenty, fifty years time? Go into the future and look back: how did you get there? What are the steps? How could you shorten the sequence by doing things in parallel or not at all? How could you share time with other people?

Fig. 13 Playing with time

Innovation in non-scientific arenas

Invention happens in very “non-scientific” arenas. You can invent new processes, business strategies or social systems for how people interact and work together. Happily, four science principles work just as well in these arenas.


Energy in human situations often translates into effort, enthusiasm and persistence. Some tasks are just boring, which is a low energy mental state. Inventing with energy in social situations could means finding ways to make things more interesting and exciting, so the unsatisfying energy of pushing people into action is eliminated as the pull of enthusiasm is created.

Whenever we act, we use energy. Can you think of times when you waste energy? Travelling to work is a big waste for many people. The internet could provide opportunities to work on-line from home, or perhaps from a local all-purpose office where you can rent space, phones, photocopiers etc.

Sometimes we would like to use more energy, such as when we are exercising. Charity marathons are social inventions that help people to exercise together and also feel good about helping those less able than ourselves.


Things are matter. Inventing with matter means thinking about the tangible things we use. Non-material invention is more about how we use things, rather than creating those things. For example, I could invent a new way of constantly backing up my computer, perhaps by writing a program that transmits what I type, as I type it, to a remote computer. Then, even if my house explodes, my work will not be lost!

There are also various forms of ‘virtual matter’ around which you can invent. These are the intangible things, such as money, computer programs and customer satisfaction, which are nevertheless very real and worthy of significant attention.


How well do you make use of the space around you? Do you have a loft full of useless rubbish? How about your garden: is it well laid out? We have three dimensions in which to play, although we sometimes only use two. A well laid-out garden uses all dimensions well. Living well includes making good use of the spaces we have available to us.

Space is often a critical factor in organisations, where office space is measured in cost per square foot. Saving space or making better use of it is a high value activity. Moving things and people (ie. travelling) are also about space and can be very expensive. Space innovations can be about the movement of stock and parts or about the geographic positioning of facilities, for example in relation to customers and suppliers.

Other attributes of space can also be used in non-scientific inventions. Organisations have shape, functionally, geographically and in other ways. They have boundaries at which interactions occur with outsiders. You can even use physical metaphors for social effects, for example the ‘texture’ of a company might describe its culture (‘Are we bristly when we should be smooth?’).


Time is the one thing that all people have in equal measure, although we do not all use it in the same way. For busy people, saving time is critical. For those at leisure, the enjoyment of time is more important. Many service industries are founded on around time-oriented inventions.

‘Time is money’ is a common saying, but it is more true than many realise. We give our time to an employer, who gives us money. We can then spend that money to save our own time on activities like growing and cooking food. A trick to invent around is the speed at which these conversions happen. I would like to make money quickly, but spend it slowly.

Many situations can be changed by altering when things happen, and for how long they happen. Undesirable things, such as cutting the grass, may be put off or done less often. Desirable things may be done at a time when we are relaxed and more able to appreciate them.

Doing things at the same time allows bad things to be completed at once or good things to be intensified, such as theatres have combined with restaurants to extend an evening’s pleasure. Or we can spread things out or book concerts months ahead so we can look forward to them for a longer time.

In combination, these four science principles can be very useful. For example, we can consider how time may be traded off against space, or how things may be done using less energy. When we are concerned with how and when things are moved, and the time factors involved, we are using all four science principles.

New investment methods could be invented by considering how money may be automatically moved around, over time, in the virtual space of world banking systems. Looking at how and when people meet, and the energies of their interactions, could improve whole societies.

Invention so-what

Knowing some simple science is a powerful thing. So is remembering that most (if not all) great innovations came from people who were either outside or new to the area of invention. If you are a scientist, forget or challenge your training. Learn to ask great questions. Spot scientific assumptions and openly question them.

Everything is made up of energy, matter, space and time, so question all aspects of each of these, individually and in combination. Here are just a few of the many questions and considerations you can take into mind.

  • What are the energy effects?

    • How is energy stored? What other storage could be used?

    • How is energy converted? Into what form? Can less be used?

    • What are the attributes of energy that can be changed?

  • What are the forces involved?

    • What are the electromagnetic effects?

    • What happens at the atomic or molecular level?

    • How can you use less force? Can you trade force for time, space or energy?

  • What materials are you using?

    • What is happening to the atoms and molecules? How are relationships changing?

    • What is happening at the surface? How is it interacting with its environment?

    • How heavy and dense is it? Would it help to change these?

    • How strong is it? Will it withstand pressure, twisting or stretching?

    • How flexible is it? What are the effects of this? What happens when it is stretched?

    • How chemically stable is it? Is it reacting with the air or other parts?

    • How smooth is it? What are the friction effects?

  • What shape is it?

    • How big is it? What if you changed the size? Or in one dimension only?

    • What happens at the boundaries? Could you change the texture?

    • Where are the weak points? Could you strengthen them?

    • To what degree is the shape dictated by the way it is made?

  • How can you invent with greatest currency of all: time?

    • How can you save time? Can you change serial to parallel?

    • How do things start and finish? How do they change in between?

    • What are the dependencies? Where are the dead spots where things are waiting for one another?

    • Can you change the perception of time? Can you make it more enjoyable?

A Science Lens

In the previous chapter we took a basic review of science, looking at it through the lenses of energy and force, matter, space and time. In this chapter we continue our challenging journey showing how we can look afresh and in detail at a single scientific principle, for which we have chosen friction.

Please note that this is not intended as a complete treatise on the subject nor does it cover all parts of science. What it does aim to do is indicate how you can look at scientific subjects in simple, unscientific and unconventional ways that allow you to see things differently and consequently make use of them in your inventions.

Friction might be considered as being well understood, but scientists are still debating this point. In fact, as with pressure, it can be said that that friction doesn’t exist! This may seem to be a rather alarming statement, but let us consider the real situation. In fact we will use friction as a particular example of looking in detail at what at first may seem to be a simple and well-understood problem.

If you have a bowl of fruit and you want to invent a way of making it more green, you could think of is as an ‘inventing with light’ problem and, before thinking about what you might change, ask what kinds of different light there is. For example, you could make it more green by adding green things to the bowl, you could remove some of the red and yellow fruit, or you could even put it next to a green plant.

Friction is like the colour in the fruit bowl: it is made up of several different things. To change friction, we need to identify and understand these different components.

A good, creative starting point is to review the definition and get a fresh view of the problem. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary describes it as ‘resistance a body encounters in moving over another.’ So it is about what stops things that are in contact with one another from moving relative to one another.


Think of a heavy supermarket trolley going over rough concrete. Although the wheels help you move it, the trolley still has to rise and fall over the bumps, and the size and shape of the bumps will change how much force you need overall to move the trolley forwards.

Now zoom into the microscopic view of a block of wood being pushed along a table (Fig 15). The same thing is happening! The molecules from the wood and the table are snagging against one another making the wood bounce imperceptibly on its way. With a larger, heavier block of wood, you might be able to feel the juddering. All surfaces have some bumps, unless they are so fine they have one nearly smooth layer of atoms (and then other factors, such as electrostatic forces, are important).

So a way of reducing friction is to smooth out the bumps. Oil partly works this way, filling in the gaps between the bumps. Sometimes, you may want to increase the friction, such as when you need a rug to stay where it is and not slide across the floor. In either case, you may want to change the size and shape of the bumps or the effect they have, both on the thing that is being pushed and on the surface on which it is moving.

Fig. 15 Friction bounce


When two objects try to move against each other, if one has parts which will move elastically then it may effectively reduce resistance as the flexible parts of the surface bend around and over the bumps on the other surface rather than having to bounce over them.

Consider pushing a heavy box across a wooden floor. The box bounces along awkwardly with plenty of frictional resistance. If we took a piece of carpet, turned it upside down and put the box on top, now the flexible hairs on the carpet would fit into the gaps between the bumps, smoothing the ride and making the box easier to push.

Fig. 16 Using elasticity to smooth the ride

Now consider what would happen if we now had to push the box (with the carpet attached) across a carpet. The two sets of hair in the carpet would now entangle, actually increasing the friction. The algebra of this is as follows:

Bumps + Bumps = Friction

Bumps + Elasticity = Less friction

Elasticity + Elasticity = More friction!

To increase or decrease friction, consider the elasticity in both surfaces. Think about how easy or not it is to move a vacuum cleaner around the house. Over carpet, a smooth metal plate would be the best bottom surface, over a smooth floor a bristle surround would be better. The whole picture is complicated by the fact that you have air flowing between the surfaces, but the principles are clear.


For some surfaces, the problem with lack of smoothness is overcome by the fact that molecules or even lumps of molecules will crack and break off as you move objects against each other. If you start sanding a piece of wood the first push may be hard but it soon gets easier as the surfaces are broken down to become smoother. The bits that are broken off also fill the holes, serving as an added lubricant; it is only when you blow the sanded wood particles away that you find out how truly smooth the wood has become.

Thus another way to increase or decrease friction is to find ways in which you can increase or decrease the ease of breaking off small pieces of surface. Making things colder or hotter is one way, as this will change the brittleness of the materials. A special example would be ice, as this is complicated by the fact that the ice will melt in places to give you a liquid lubricant.

Fig. 17 Fracturing pieces to smooth and reduce bounce

The first three features of friction we have discussed (bounce, elasticity and fracturing) are to do with larger mechanical forces. These can be understood simply by drawing rough surfaces on a large scale and asking yourself what happens to objects moving past each other. For the next three features we are going to move closer in to the molecular level.

Electrostatic action

When molecules of two objects are in contact then some of the forces between them will be electrostatic. Electrons will be held in position and have a force between them and other positive charges in the molecules (protons) of the other object. There are technical names for the different ways this happens (Covalent bonds, Metallic bonds, Hydrogen bonds and van der Waal forces). What is happening depends on whether the electrons are held specifically between two molecules or are held generally in the electrical field created by many molecules. An easy way to think of this is by imagining a crowded party. You may have difficulty moving between people because of the general need to push people around to make space for yourself or you may need to break apart hands which are holding onto each other. So molecules may just occupy a crowded electrical space or they may be holding tight and the bonds need breaking.

What is really going on is very complicated but for inventions we might be able to simply think about what we might do to a surface to increase or decrease the friction from electrostatic forces.

For example, we could deliberately charge up the surfaces, placing electrons on or near the surface. We can alter the field reaction between the objects if they can carry a charge, we can even make the force a magnetic attraction. We can also change how much hand holding there is by changing the properties of the materials (with additives or new materials).

We should be aware that if we make our surface smoother then more molecules are getting close to other molecules, which could increase the forces of attraction between them, hence making friction greater. So we can see that although making surfaces smoother reduces friction by reducing bounce, shearing and elastic bending it increases friction through greater electrostatic forces.


Imagine pushing a brick across a treacle-covered kitchen table. It would not be an easy slide. But what if you replaced the treacle with engine oil? The brick’s journey would now be much smoother. So what is going on? How does a lubricant act to reduce the work of brick-pushing?

One thing a lubricant does is to keep apart by a small distance the surface molecules of the brick and the table. By keeping them apart we can reduce the bounce needed (they ride smoothly on the wave of liquid), reduce the need to fracture on the surface, reduce the elastic bending of bits that protrude, and reduce the electrostatic forces.

The difference between the oil and the treacle is how easily the molecules within the lubricant move relative to one another (because the electrostatic forces are really weak). This kind of ‘internal friction’ is viscosity of the liquid. In a really good lubricant, the molecules bond better to the brick and the table than they do to one another.

Now imagine something that has really weak attraction between the molecules (they could even be repel one another). This sounds very much like a gas. If you can keep the bodies apart, gas is an excellent lubricator, as Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft, well knew.

Think about a jar of jam. Inside you have a wide blade and you want to stir the jam. If the opening in the pot of jam is much larger than the size of the blade when you stir, it is easy for the molecules to move as they have lots of places to go. They can move to the biggest gaps. When the space available is limited they are harder to push around. The same is true if you want to move people around in a crowded room! So when you have a very smooth surface against another very smooth surface the viscosity can go up a lot because the molecules do not have much room to move around. Thinking creatively means using principles of friction and viscosity in situations where others would not, but which will lead to real insights.


Gravity would seem to be a significant factor in friction, as this is what makes the block heavy, but thinking differently about this shows that is it not that important.

First of all, there will be some gravitational attraction between two objects which will have a small part to play in how you can separate them. But it is so small that it is usually not worth considering.

But surely gravity plays big part in how difficult it is to move one object against another? This may seem to be true, but is only indirectly so. The weight of an object does not make it difficult to move, but it does change how the other forces above are working. For a heavy object the surfaces are pressed together more, requiring more fracturing to get things started and more bounce to keep it going.

Gravity is a contributor to the effects of friction, but it is not the real culprit and we need to be careful about how we treat this weighty subject.

The slippery case of ice

Most substances behave in predictable ways so we can have some good guesses and see what ideas arise! But just to prove the rule here is the exception: a simple substance called water.

For most substances, if you press them hard enough when they are liquid, then eventually they should become solid. The heat gets higher as you close up the molecules because they jiggle around more but if you let that get out then at a certain temperature it will go solid when under pressure. Why? Well, eventually there is just not enough space for the molecules to move around and they end up binding to one another.

But water is funny. Icebergs are funny because they float. They float because when water freezes it takes up more space (volume) not less as most things do. Just the way the molecules bind together!

So when you press on ice hard enough it melts! But it needs a lot of pressure. You might think that this pressure is why ice skates work, with the pressure melting just a little bit of ice to make a smooth lubricator. In fact the slipperiness of ice is cause by curious behaviour of a very fine surface layer of molecules.

So, if you are inventing with water and ice just watch out, as you may get the unexpected (which is always an opportunity for more invention!).

Invention so-what

The ideas we have discussed above are not presented as the high science of friction, but a surprising number of things you can make will require some thinking about how well parts hold on to, or let go of, other parts. Whether you bolt, screw, glue, weld or fasten pieces together, you should think about the potential of changing how you do this using the considerations above.

Think of it as a ‘what if?’ checklist. Can you invent better ways of connecting parts? If so you may be able to produce a much better design. Many things we use do not have good friction properties. Things stick when we want them to glide and slip when we want them to stick. Things break apart and they should stay together, or refuse to come apart when we want to separate them. Invention opportunities abound for the observant.

Just for fun, have a look around the supermarket and look at how produce is sealed into bags, boxes and tubs. Look at how many devices there are and think bout how well they work. Do you buy things in bags and then have trouble getting them to open? Bottles for pills are a good example of good and bad design as they are specifically designed to so that children cannot open them (but they often can) and adults can (but often cannot). Can you think of better designs using the ideas about friction above?

Fig. 18 What are the friction effects? How can they be improved?