“People are Like Plutonium” makes the case for one science when it comes to human systems

Explainer: A new paper by ICS and Sandia National Laboratories uses an analogy of the historic study of plutonium to assert that human systems can be analyzed and constructed similarly to elements, atoms, and compounds. Photo: Adobe Stock. College freshman Bob Rosenfeld geeked out on the periodic table. He was fascinated by the diversity of the elements and more so by their relationships and interactions in forming compounds and atoms.

This “hard science” informed his studies so much that on the third session of “soft science” Psych 101, young Bob asked the professor, “Can you show me your periodic table for people?” The bemused prof wasn’t ready with an answer, but Bob didn’t forget.

Later, Bob wrote the books, Making the Invisible Visible: The Human Principles for Sustaining Innovation and The Invisible Element: A Practical Guide for the Human Dynamics of Innovation, further making the human connection to elements, compounds, and reactions unseen by the naked eye.

Of course, Bob Rosenfeld also developed the Innovation Strengths Preference Indicator and established this company.

And recently Bob, with colleagues and ICS client Sandia National Laboratories, co-authored “People Are Like Plutonium,” a white paper establishing the case for deconstructing the silos of science:

An analogy is drawn between the study of human behavior and the study of plutonium to

demonstrate that “soft” and “hard” sciences are more similar than different, making the distinction moot and unproductive…

“People Are Like Plutonium,” by Judi E. See, Robert B. Rosenfeld, Sylvester Taylor, and K. M. Wedic, is a joint paper between ICS and Sandia to further the discussion and study of how human organizations can improve their effectiveness.

The authors write:

The analogy presented in this paper demonstrates that the thought processes and the methodologies required for success are the same in the so-called soft and hard sciences. In the end, endeavors in both realms represent science—a systematic and disciplined search for knowledge. The materials that are studied in various disciplines differ, but the processes to study them are parallel. Plutonium is complex, and people are equally complex. On the surface, both plutonium and people can appear perplexing and unknowable. However, the study of plutonium and the study of human behavior both demonstrate that predictability is achievable, given time, research, rigor, experimentation, and an openness to opportunities that may present themselves.

ICS is grateful to our clients at Sandia National Laboratories for partnering in publishing this important paper.