Soap powder

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Sex and Soap Powder, Trial and Error

“There is a soap powder factory near Liverpool. … In that factory they mix a bunch of ingredients together: water softeners, enzymes, bleach, detergent, and water.  Then they pump the resulting slurry at high pressure and temperature through a spray nozzle.  When they do that the water evaporates and leaves a powder that looks a little like snow. Finally they take that powder and put it in a box and sell it for a chunk of change.

But the people who do this for a living had a problem. The nozzle kept blocking. The powder that came out was too big or too small, too dry or too wet. If you make soap powder the last thing you need is a nozzle full of lumpy, gunky, almost but not quite, soap powder. …

The solution to a problem like this is to find some experts.

The first set of experts were chemical engineers.  They had qualifications in heat exchange mechanisms and applied mathematics.  If fluid dynamics was top of your list, these were the men to have in the room. …

The second set of experts were evolutionary biologists.  For my sins I was once an evolutionary biologist.  People like me know all about sex, but only the theory, not the practice I’d hasten to add. …

The engineers … Investigated the problem, wrote equations and held meetings.  Then they designed and built a solution and implemented it.  It was a better nozzle.  I’d love to tell you how much better, but I can’t find a reference, so let’s go with not much better.  The problems prevailed.

The biologists … Took a different tack.  They weren’t experts in making soap powder, but they did know about evolution.

They took the nozzle and make 10 copies of it, but no copy was exactly the same. Some were fatter, some were thinner.  Some were taller or shorter.  Some had notches in them, others had grooves.  They were all slightly different. Then they pumped soap slurry through the different nozzles until they blocked and looked at the results. They measured the quality and volume and worked out which of the ten nozzles was the best.

They threw away the 9 failures, took the best nozzle and made ten copies of it…  Repeating the trial and error process for 45 generations. … After they had failed four hundred and forty nine times, the biologists stopped.  They had developed a nozzle that was (allegedly) hundreds of time better.

The lesson … Mistakes are inevitable.  We live in a complex world.  We can’t hope to understand everything.   So don’t worry about making mistakes.  Just make sure you have a way of capturing and learning from them.”

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