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Admitting You're Wrong

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Part of getting better means figuring out where you went wrong. Newspapers do this all the time -- this web site keeps track of newspaper corrections. I have been reading a Space.com series on why space travel is so tough and how that people that want to believe we can make substantial progress are being hustled by con artists. You gotta love an article that is titled "Thinking Clearly About Space" Monte Davis may be a smart person, writing for Omni and all that, but he's part of the problem and not part of the solution.

He makes some good points: rockets are simple, rocket engineering is extremely tough. Here is a particularly salient quote:

"...A lot of energy goes into lamenting that, and arguing over what went wrong after Apollo. Try Occam’s razor instead: perhaps we enthusiasts are part of a majority in thinking new achievements in space are admirable, but a minority in the priority we put on achieving them with tax money. Try facing facts: the pace from Sputnik through Apollo was an exception, not the norm. It was enabled by military missile technology that had already done the hardest part of the engineering. It was funded in a unique Cold War period when everything the US and USSR did was part of a global contest. And Apollo itself was aimed at a specific "flags and footprints" victory within that contest. It was never meant to be a foundation for sustained expansion into space, no matter how much we wish otherwise..."

I love old Occam and his razor -- whatever the simplest answer, usually that is the truest one. But "simplest" is always a relative term depending on who is doing the explaining.
As a consultant, many times I come into companies where there are problems, where change is needed for the company to prosper. One of the saddest parts of this job is that many times people create their own prisons with the assumptions they make about reality. What seems simple, common sense oftentimes is counter-productive. When I'm teaching people process, many times the developers will tell me, "We don't have time for process!" As if somehow it would be possible to do anything without some kind of process. I think what they are really saying is that "we don't trust you not to make things worse." which is a fair enough statement.
But by saying the generality "We don't have time for process" they are basically preventing ANYONE from helping them. Any kind of process, or recipe, for making software is not going to help them. Their own assumptions and language has prevented them from making progress. This is mostly the case.
Likewise, when old Monte starts in on about how us kind, soft-headed space enthusiasts are being mislead with tales of easy space exploration, I think he makes the same mistake. "Rockets are tough! You can only get so much energy from them and they are difficult to make." -- these types of statements are true. They are even useful, if you assume that all space travel must be done with rockets. I'm not buying that assumption, however. Companies like JP Aerospace are talking about using blimps to move cargo into orbit -- sounds crazy but the math works out. And it's not like blimps are some super-high technology. The military already has railguns that are achieving 20 kilometer-per-second velocities -- plenty for launching orbital cargo if scaled up. Once again, this is existing technology.
Space travel is not even something new. It is nowhere near as tough as say, nuclear fusion or curing cancer. For something like the cost of the war in Iraq we could already have an operating moon base. It's just a matter of getting out of the gravity well. But for people who stay inside the box -- who view the future as just an extension of the past -- it's all to easy to become a cynic.
There are two types of people in the world, those who say, "It's tougher than you think, kid!" and those who say, "Let's go make this work." We need both people to move forward.
Here are some other people who said, "It's tougher than you think!" -- Note that these people were not fools, and were making the best assessment they could at the time, given their own assumptions and beliefs.

  • "There will never be a bigger plane built." -- A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that carried ten people.

  • "There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will." -- Albert Einstein

  • "It will be years--not in my time--before a woman will become Prime Minister." -- Margaret Thatcher, 1974

  • "The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives." -- Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project.

  • "No matter what happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping." -- U.S. Secretary of Navy, December 4, 1941

  • "The telephone will be used to inform people that a telegram has been sent." -- Alexander Graham Bell

  • "The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible." -- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.

  • "What use could this company make of an electrical toy?" -- Western Union president William Orton, responding to an offer from Alexander Graham Bell to sell his telephone company to Western Union for $100,000.

  • "That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced." -- Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909.

  • "There has been a great deal said about a 3000 miles high angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible for many years. The people who have been writing these things that annoy me have been talking about a 3000 mile high-angle rocket shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb and so directed as to be a precise weapon which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city. I say, technically, I don't think anyone in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident that it will not be done for a very long period of time to come... I think we can leave that out of our thinking. I wish the American public would leave that out of their thinking." -- Vanevar Bush, director of USA Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.

A couple of last quotes
  • "If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can't be done." -- Peter Ustinov

  • "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow." -- Robert Goddard (1882-1945)

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel published on September 1, 2005 2:29 PM.

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Daniel Markham