My Experiences With My Teacher Genrikh Saulovich Altshuller (Part 3 of 4)

This is part 3 of a 4-part series.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

MY EXPERIENCES WITH MY TEACHER GENRIKH SAULOVICH ALTSHULLER (part 3&4)

Keynote Papers for
TRIZCON2001
Woodland Hills Hilton Hotel
Woodland Hills, California, USA.
March 25-27, 2001
Hosted by the Altshuller Institute, USA
by
PHAN DŨNG (FAN ZÕONG)
Ph.D., Sc.D.,
Director of the Center for Scientific and Technical Creativity (CSTC)
Vietnam National University - HoChiMinh City
College of Natural Sciences
227 Nguyen Van Cu St., Dist. 5
HoChiMinh City, Vietnam
Tel : (848) 8301743 Fax: (848) 8354009
E-mail : pdung@hcmuns.edu.vn or tsk@hcmuns.edu.vn

Website : http://www.hcmuns.edu.vn/CSTC/home-v.htm (In Vietnamese)
http://www.hcmuns.edu.vn/CSTC/home-e.htm (In English)

MY EXPERIENCES WITH MY TEACHER GENRIKH SAULOVICH ALTSHULLER

Phan Dung

Throughout my life, I have never stopped thinking that I am very lucky to know TRIZ (the Russian acronym for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) and to have learned it directly and happily by chance from the teacher: Genrikh Saulovich Altshuller, the father of TRIZ. I am sure that if I had not discovered TRIZ in 1971, I would certainly have known it later and would have followed it for the rest of my life.

In my childhood, whenever I did something wrong (in spite of good aim or so I thought) I was often scolded “ It’s foolish! You should think carefully before doing anything”. Saying nothing, I thought to myself “Not until I make mistakes and am criticized, does anyone teach me how to think!” and I tried to learn the way of thinking.

In high-school, like my friends, I did admire scientists, inventors, writers and poets. I also wished that I could do something new to contribute to my country and mankind as well. I asked myself “ How can they think up such wonderful things?”. In correcting exercises, some of my friends volunteered to solve the problems for the whole class on the spot. At that time I wondered “How can they think so quickly?”

Such questions arose in my mind many times a day. Although I discussed them with my friends and asked my elders, I felt dissatisfied. Sometimes, new questions arose from the answers.

When learning laws in physics, chemistry, and biology, I thought “Are there any laws in thinking? Why haven’t they been taught in high-school? Why don’t I find my own way of thinking?”

In learning, I first chose mathematics to observe my thinking process when solving problems. After coming to a solution, I recalled my way of thinking many times, then tried to explain it logically, even the problems which were solved by chance. Not all solving processes could be explained logically, but I felt very excited whenever successful. By self-evaluating, I saw my thinking was better.After that, I became more self-confident and liked doing exercises more, not only in the mathematical discipline.

In 1967, I was sent to the Soviet Union (now CIS) to study experimental solid state physics. After a pre-university year learning Russian, I went into the State University of Azerbaigian in Baku city. It was the Russian language, bookstores and libraries that helped me find the answers to some of the questions that had haunted me for such a long time. Whenever I had free time, I went to the bookstores, or the libraries to search for documents related to creative thinking. My understanding improved considerably. I applied my reading to my thinking and achieved some interesting results. However, I wanted to understand more concretely and more practically.

I think it is inevitable that my habit of reading about creative thinking, sooner or later, would have lead me to TRIZ. And in this inevitability there happened a lucky event.

One day, in 1971, when I was a senior, my lecturer of “solid state theory” was late, so I chatted to some Soviet students beside me. Fifteen minutes passed but the lecturer had not arrived yet. I asked them my questions associated with creative thinking. Andrei told me that the All-Union Association of Soviet Inventors and Rationalizators had just founded the Public Institute of Inventive Creativity which taught the creative thinking methods. He, himself, had been studying here and was finding it interesting. Like a thirsty man who sees the water, I asked Andrei to guide me to enter the Institute after class.

We arrived early, met the teacher Mr. Altshuller, and after some of Andrei’s introductory sentences, I said immediately what I had prepared because I had some reasons to worry: the class had begun quite some time before I arrived, it might already be full. I worried whether foreigners would be accepted to the Institute… In general, I worried that I would not be permitted to enter the Institute. The teacher Mr. Altshuller listened attentively to me, did not interrupt, and then briefly gave his agreement which dispersed my prepared arguments in the case of his having questions. He said: “If you love creative thinking, you can enter the class. I think whatever you study in this Institute will be useful to you and your heroic country. I will help you if you have any difficulties”. I was as happy as if I were floating on air. And from that moment, I had a new life.

This was the first time I saw the teacher Mr. Genrikh Saulovich Altshuller. I thought that the teacher who taught creativity would be older (in order to have creative experience to share with others), so I was surprised. He looked like a young sportsman, maybe because of his well-proportioned body, his lively gait, and his simple clothing (I have hardly ever seen him wearing a neck-tie, even when I see his pictures in newspapers, books or magazines) and his easy-going and modest manner. He had a kind-hearted face, intelligent, warm eyes and thick, curly, brownish hair. He was quite handsome according to the traditional model. As I came to know later, at that time, he was 45 and he had his first patent when he was only 14.

Coming to study with me later in my first class (1971 - 1973), were also Mr. Nguyen Van Chan, Mr. Nguyen Van Thong; and in the second one (1973 -1975) Mr. Duong Xuan Bao, Mr. Thai Ba Can and Mr. Nguyen Quang Tho, all of whom were also Vietnamese students at that time.

The Public Institute of Inventive Creativity (PIIC or its Russian acronym is AzOIIT) was founded by the teacher Mr. Altshuller’s initiative, and he was also the designer of curricula and syllabus. Its objective was to prepare the professional inventors, the researchers and lecturers of the creativity methodologies and the organizers of the creative and inventive activities. This Institute was also a place where the new research results of TRIZ were tested and where the feedback received from the teaching and application by learners was used in order to perfect TRIZ. The progam lasted 2 years. The main subjects were:

  1. Creativity Methodologies (TRIZ was the principal course but the methods of other schools in the field, including Western ones were also studied)

  2. Development of Creative Imagination

  3. Psychology of Creativity

  4. Systems Theory

  5. Information Theory

  6. Cybernetics

  7. Decision Making Theory

  8. Patentology

  9. Forecasting Methods

  10. History of the Development of Science and Technology.

As Philosophy had already been studied in the university program, it was not taught at the PIIC.

Some subjects had to be finished by passing a test, the others required a marked examination. In the end, learners had to write and defend a thesis before the Institute Scientific Council. There were two kinds of thesis theme.

  1. Solving a practical problem at a successful enough level to have a patent (including application documents of invention written by the author himself)

    Research work to continually develop a certain part of the creativity methodologies.The teacher Mr. Altshuller mainly taught two subjects (No 1&2) which took the largest amount of time for classroom activities and homework. The more I study, the more I understand the teacher Mr. Altshuller’s advice: “For a long time, solving problems will be more important than studying the theory” and "studying the creative thinking is the same as learning to play sport. So you have to focus much on practising in order to achieve the skills and manners needed for your work and life".

As I said above, it was an irreplaceable opportunity to learn directly from the teacher Mr. Altshuller. As time went by, the more I knew him, the more I appreciated this opportunity.

First and foremost, it was the chance to learn the work (TRIZ) from the author himself. Therefore, the learners were not afraid of misunderstanding after some misrepresentation of TRIZ's methodology. Nowadays, when exploring the Internet, and watching the activities about TRIZ over the world, I find that the problem of incorrect understanding and teaching of TRIZ is not in very small number. When learning from the author himself, learners could ask about anything involved with the work and they could have reliable answers to their questions, even concerning the experiences with which his work was written. If you learn only from those who have read or learned before you, you will not have this chance.

However, it is unascertainable whether the author is always able to deliver effectively his knowledge to learners. Knowledge is information. There are various factors such as: the accuracy and the form of generating, processing and encoding information from the transmitter, the environment, and the cognitive level of the receiver that can influence the effectiveness of communicating this information. In this aspect, I had another chance too: the teacher Mr. Altshuller was an excellent pedagogue. As a learner, I found that his language was clear and accurate, neither complicated nor wordy. So listeners could understand exactly what he meant. Always using pictures, and illustrations, he made his lectures well-arranged and highly convincible with valuable details. Let’s make a comparison - you are invited to taste a special dish by two people; the first one says “It is very delicious, go ahead!”, the second does not use the words “delicious” or “go ahead” but goes into details so strongly desirous that you serve yourself before his speeches have finished. Evidently, you are persuaded more easily by the second one, who motivates you to do the act. The teacher Mr. Altshuller applied a flexible approach in giving lectures and answering questions, depending on the kind and/or the level of listeners. He mastered a rich source of expressions, examples and stories from various domains, so he easily made a good connection with learners. Furthermore, he had a lot of funny, humorous tales and anecdotes related to creativity, which set a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. Listening to him, I felt that he did not present TRIZ as the theory only but that I had listened to the story of his research and theory building process. Writing on this point, I remember Tolstoi’s observation: “It is worth not only knowing that the Earth is round but more importantly knowing how to come to this conclusion”. I must say the teacher Mr. Altshuller had managed to capture the heads and hearts of the learners. He was not only a teacher but also an artist. He, himself, was a symbol of beauty in conveying the best and the most human quality, that is, the creativity, to the learners. Probably for this reason, he is also well appreciated in the Soviet Union as a science fiction writer.

Through his answers to my questions in the classroom, at break-time, or during my visits to his apartment, especially in the time of writing my thesis, I felt my knowledge became more profound. He not only satisfied my queries but also provoked me to develop my thoughts further in a way that I could not imagine before. Simultaneously, I became more strict with myself because in answering carefully certain questions, he added “My answers all follow from what we have already learned”. His eyes seemed to say “with your ability you can answer your own questions, you should solve these yourself first. Be self-confident, my young man”. Since then, I have usually applied my own knowledge to answer the questions by myself and only asked the teacher or others once I cannot. This effort improved my self-confidence and my independence in learning and researching later.

In writing our theses, the teacher Mr. Altshuller encouraged us to choose our own subjects appropriate to our specific fields. Knowing that my major was physics, he suggested I should choose the theme “Guiding the Usage of Physical Effects in Inventing” while my heartfelt, long-nurtured topic was “The Psychological Inertia in Solving Creative Problems”.

As I said above, in my high school, I usually validated my own thinking process in solving problems, but there were many problems I could not solve. After seeing the result, I realized that it was not because I did not have enough necessary knowledge and capacity but because there seemed to be a certain force hampering me to apply my knowledge, and I hated that force. Afterwards, I found its name : the Psychological Inertia. Minding the psychological inertia, failing many times because of it, and really have strong negative feelings about it, I wanted to choose it as my topic instead of complying with his advice. I did not know how to tell him (in Vietnam I was taught to obey the teacher). Finally I decided to tell him frankly because I was also taught to have “frankness and courage”. That made me feel peaceful.

I intended to accept his suggestion once he did not agree with me. When I told him, I thought that he would persuade me to follow his idea, but, unexpectedly, he agreed at once: “If you love the psychological inertia, begin now please”. Simultaneously, he showed me the difficulties that I had to figure out in advance when I, as a physicist, moved to study psychology.

I gave him whatever I had partially finished writing. If he had time, we would discuss it at once, if not, he would read it at home and make an appointment with me. He commented on every part of the thesis and asked me many questions such as: “How have people taken steps to implement this idea? Which document was it published in? Have you really read the original text? Have you found all of the related documents? Is your data convincible? Is there any data more convincible? Is it too early for you to draw this conclusion? Is there any other explanation? Any other kind of approach and consideration? Are you able to create tools or at least offer some advice to help others overcome their psychological inertia? In which directions may this theme be continually developed?” ... As a matter of fact, “I shed the sweat” while working with him and I understood that he was very strict in research work. His training and teaching style gave me important advantages when I worked on my dissertations for doctor’s degrees: Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Science(1) in physics about the optical processes in semimagnetic semiconductors in 1980s in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). And especially “The Psychological Inertia”, which then I continued to develop into “The Systems Inertia”, was reported at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation and published in the Netherlands.

When I gave the teacher Mr. Altshuller my manuscript for his last review before it was typewritten, I wrote on the first page, the Scientific Supervisor: Genrikh Saulovich Altshuller. He saw it and crossed it out. To my surprise he just smiled and said: "You chose and completed the thesis yourself, not me, you have to be responsible for your work". There were some implications in his speech. Maybe he judged that my thesis was not good enough for him to put his name to and even made him lose his prestige; maybe, he was sincere, and thought that his role was only as an opponent or an adviser, not as a scientific supervisor. Furthermore, he wanted to raise the responsibility of learners who should make their own authority in science research without relying on other's reputations. Here, I suddenly remember a humorous story "Rabbit Defends his Thesis". It was said that, in his thesis, the rabbit concluded that he could eat fox, wolf even bear. Finally, the thesis was also passed because of a simple reason - his scientific supervisor was a lion.

By the way, I would like to say a little more. I came three times to study and to work in the setting of university education and science research in the Soviet Union - in total about 12 years. I found, in general, that lecturers and scientists did not impose their research idea on their learners. They were willing to discuss with learners who sometimes had their own idea. Even in the case that learners did not agree with their lecturers or scientific supervisors, they did not use their authority to hamper learners from implementing their research idea. In my experimental physics field, I met such problems about ten times. After discussion, these professors generally said: "Here are samples and equipment, try to conduct your experiments as you like and see what will happen, you never know". However, they would not compromise their high requirements of the process and the method of implementing the idea, the verification of the obtained data, the interpretation of results gained and the prediction of possible consequences.

During the time of the teacher Mr. Altshuller's reviewing my thesis for the last time, I was really in an indescribable state: happiness and worry. They were mixed up. I was happy because I had just finished what I was interested in. Also, I was worried because I had to type my paper according to the rules of submitting research. Typing was my financial problem because my monthly scholarship was only 6O roubles. So, I planned to cut down some of my expenses.

On returning my thesis in a large envelope, he said, "You have to finish some missing figures. Congratulations on your successful work!". He shook my hand and quickly walked away. On the way to my student hostel, I could not understand what he had meant, for in the thesis I had already drawn all the figures. So why had he asked me to do that again? Entering my room, leaving the door open, hurriedly I opened the envelope. My thesis had been typed with some blanks for the “unfinished” figures. In the next meeting, I said thanks to him. He said to me, “I did it because the Institute's typist was typing some new documents. So I took the opportunity to ask her for help”. He said: “I took the opportunity” then changed his subject. He advised me to bind the thesis in volume by myself, not to waste my money on having it done in a workshop, because there were only 4O pages. I realized that he went out of his way to help me in many cases. The point was that, when we Vietnamese students talked to him during the break time or when we visited his apartment, answering his and his wife's (Mrs. Valentina Nhikolaevna Zhuravliova) questions about our life, study, scholarship, and accommodation... they remembered everything and they always took the opportunity to help us. In their words, manner and actions we clearly felt their parental warm concern for us. They cared for us in many ways, giving us advice on things such as how to keep warm in the freezing temperatures, what to eat a lot of for our health, where to go sightseeing... They used to invite us to come to their apartment to enjoy a family atmosphere, and always asked us to have dinner with them before leaving. Their and other teachers' hospitality comforted us a lot for the long time of six years of study there in Baku, because we had no money to travel back home for holidays, even once.

After successfully defending my two theses: one on physics at the University and other on creativity at the PIIC I went to the teacher Mr. Altshuller's appartment to say goodbye to his family because I had to get back to Vietnam after my graduation. I gave him my address in Vietnam and promised to write to him as soon as I got there. He took a lot of typed pieces of papers out and gave them to me and said:“ Here is the draft of my book. Take it with you. After its publication, I will post the printed copy to you. But in case it gets lost, you already have this draft copy. Send our best regards to all your family members. I am sure that your country will be completely re-unified without fail”. I told him that, maybe in a short time I would come back here to be a doctoral student in physics because I was recommended by the State University of Azerbaigian. But according to our rules, I had to return to my country first. At that time, it was the beginning of the summer of the year l973, the Paris Agreement on Peace in Vietnam had been signed several months ago. He kept his promise and to ensure that they reached me, he asked the students who returned to Vietnam after me to bring me the necessary materials.

----End of Part 3. Look for part 4 in the September 2001 TRIZ Journal