By Bill Frayer

Can You Look Outside Your Paradigms?


I remember an article written by a physics professor who had included the following question on an exam: “Explain how to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.” He presumably wanted the student to use atmospheric pressure to solve the problem. The student claimed there were many ways to accomplish the task. One suggestion was to go to the roof of the building and tie a rope to the barometer, lower the barometer to the street and measure the rope. Another was to drop the barometer to the street, timing its fall, and using a simple equation, determine the height of the building.

He also proposed putting the barometer on the sidewalk, measuring the shadow of the barometer, the shadow of the building, and the height of the barometer. Using a proportion, he could calculate the height of the building. His final solution was to knock on the superintendant’s door and say, “Hello sir. Here I have a fine barometer. If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer!”

This student was a creative thinker. He was able to break through the barometer “paradigm.” A paradigm is a particular pattern of thinking. The barometer paradigm is that a barometer can only be used for measuring atmospheric pressure. The student shattered that paradigm.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn discussed the idea of paradigms in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He suggested that scientific innovation usually occurred when scientists found ways to break existing paradigms. Copernicus did it by suggesting the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. Einstein did it when he proved that time and space are relative values, not constants.

The concept of a computer changed forever when IBM moved from the “mainframe” to the PC. The original computer paradigm was the computer as a giant calculator. In fact one early computer pioneer famously remarked that he didn’t think the world would need more than 4 or 5 computers. This paradigm was broken when the idea of software, based on binary code, allowed a computer to do virtually any task.

The mechanical watch paradigm was broken by the invention of the quartz movement. The epicenter of watch development shifted from Switzerland to Japan because the Swiss suffered what Kuhn called, “paradigm paralysis,” and stuck with their old methods.

How often do we get so stuck in our own paradigms that we fail to think creatively outside the box and conceptualize new paradigms? I suspect that the older we get, the more susceptible we are to “paradigm paralysis.” Here’s a brain teaser. To solve it, you need to shift your paradigm.

Imagine a room with a single light bulb hanging by its cord from the ceiling. The room is sealed; no light can escape. Outside the room are three switches. One turns on the light bulb; the other two do nothing. You may manipulate the switches in some way, then open the door and determine which switch is the live one. Once you have opened the door, you cannot touch the switches again. You are not to dismantle the switch box or use any kind of electric meter. You cannot see light under the door with the door closed. It’s a difficult puzzle. I’ll reveal the solution next month. My email is billfrayer@gmail.com if you think you’ve solved it.

Next month, more about some contemporary paradigm-breaking pioneers.


Ojo Del Lago
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