The Indiana Jones of Solar Power

Aidan Dwyer – at 13 years old – has made a solar power breakthrough by looking at the way trees are shaped. That’s pretty darn impressive – a little bit like the Blackawton primary school science class and their academic paper on bees.

What I love, though, is his explanation of the process of his discovery. It has pattern-spotting, curiosity, research, maths, geography, history, design, science and more all thrown in. Aidan is clearly a model problem solver and I’m looking forward to seeing how my class react.

He starts:

People see winter as a cold and gloomy time in nature. The days are short. Snow blankets the ground. Lakes and ponds freeze, and animals scurry to burrows to wait for spring. The rainbow of red, yellow and orange autumn leaves has been blown away by the wind turning trees into black skeletons that stretch bony fingers of branches into the sky. It seems like nature has disappeared.

But when I went on a winter hiking trip in the Catskill Mountains in New York, I noticed something strange about the shape of the tree branches. I thought trees were a mess of tangled branches, but I saw a pattern in the way the tree branches grew. I took photos of the branches on different types of trees, and the pattern became clearer.

Then there’s this.

The branches seemed to have a spiral pattern that reached up into the sky. I had a hunch that the trees had a secret to tell about this shape. Investigating this secret led me on an expedition from the Catskill Mountains to the ancient Sanskrit poetry of India; from the 13th-century streets of Pisa, Italy, and a mysterious mathematical formula called the “divine number” to an 18th-century naturalist who saw this mathematical formula in nature; and, finally, to experimenting with the trees in my own backyard.

I love the breadth of the approach. And I love the way it is problem-solving, but problem-solving that is not constrained by subject, period or style. It is, I think, very Indiana Jones.


Brunelleschi’s Eggs

More from John Kay’s Obliquity:

The Duomo

“The Florentine cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was intended to have the largest dome of any modern building. The problems for over a century was that no one knew how to build it. According to Vasari in his Lives of the Painters, Brunelleschi won the commission to complete the structure by challenging his rivals to stand an egg upright on a piece of marble. After they all failed, he simply tapped the shell down on the marble and stood the egg on its broken end. He went on to crack the problem of constructing the dome When Brunelleschi’s rivals pointed out that anyone could have solved the egg problem in that way the architect replied that anyone could build his dome once they had seen his solution.”

Searching the Brain for the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving – NYTimes.com

researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.<br />
<br />
“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.<br />
<br />
This and other recent research suggest that the appeal of puzzles goes far deeper than the dopamine-reward rush of finding a solution. The very idea of doing a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle typically shifts the brain into an open, playful state that is itself a pleasing escape, captivating to people as different as Bill Clinton, a puzzle addict, and the famous amnesiac Henry Molaison, or H.M., whose damaged brain craved crosswords.

Source: here

Something to Remember

Wise words from Euan.  The secret of Enterprise 2.0 success.

.. isn’t to try to make people change … it is to do something that can’t already be done.

Don’t try to get your powerful people to behave differently – they have everything to lose. Don’t try to improve your existing processes – you will be seen to be breaking something.

Focus instead on the things that are desperately trying to happen but aren’t and the people who are desperately trying to connect but can’t. Do things that make the impossible possible and your success rate will soar.

Seems to be more and more to the point with the 21st Century skills approach to education.  There’s loads of technical solutions to possible problems.  But there are far fewer problems that people have isolated and said “Actually, that needs to be fixed and we could do it like so.”

If anyone knows of any educational “I had this problem and I fixed it with this tool” sort of list, I’d love to hear about it. 

Teaching the Art of Problem Solving

This MIT lecture by Sanjoy Mahajan was, I thought, well worth watching.

He talks about a range of things. Mainly how the art of problem solving is distinct from the skill of pattern matching, and how to cultivate the former.

He identifies the following types of problem solving approaches (as some):

  1. Reducing to already solved cases
  2. Look for simple/extreme cases to look for pattern
  3. guessing
  4. symmetry
  5. be lazy
  6. use good representations (e.g. drawings), and
  7. analogy

And in terms of teaching them he recommends the following:

  1. Name the types of approach (so you can recognise what you
  2. Diversity of examples to use the technique in (and not the same problem rephrased)
  3. Ask yourself Wheeler’s Question: “What one or two sentences could you tell your earlier self (the self that hadn’t solved the problem yet) that would make the solution really easy?”. This is essentially a shorter version of Gladwell’s Outlier idea. It is deliberative practice rather than just practice per se, and makes sure you are actually learning from the right kind of practice.