Design007 Magazine


Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 79 of 111

80 DESIGN007 MAGAZINE I NOVEMBER 2020 to an inescapable conclusion." These individu- als see the writing on the wall, so to speak, and still do not change their views or challenge their own assumptions. Clarke recalls the writings of the prominent 20 th -century American astronomer, Simon New- comb, who declared that heavier-than-air flight was utterly impossible. To arrive at his conclu- sion, Newcomb performed mathematics using the model of a flat board suspended in air and powered by a steam engine. Newcomb's paper was published in October 1903 and received high praise from the scientific community. In December 1903, the Wright Brothers achieved the first reported heavier-than-air flight of their prototype aircraft at Kitty Hawk. Unlike Newcomb's thought experiment, the prototype aircraft utilized complex airfoil geometry and an internal combustion engine. While Newcomb's mathematics were sound, his inability to be open-minded and embrace contemporary technologies inhibited him from making correct predictions of the impending state of the art. Failures of nerve happen within the bounds of known science and engineering. Failures of imagination, on the other hand, occur outside of those bounds. Clarke defines these failures as arising "when all the available facts are appre- ciated and marshaled correctly—but when the really vital facts are still undiscovered, and the possibility of their existence is not admitted." These failures occur because you don't know what you don't know. Clarke gives another excellent example. Referring to stars, the 18 th -century philosopher Auguste Comte wrote that "we can see how we may determine their forms, their distances, their bulk, their motions, but we can never know anything of their chemical mineralogi- cal structure; and much less, that of organized beings living on their surfaces." Of course, reading that quote in 2020, we can simply Google "spectra of main-sequence stars" or even "NASA exoplanet archive" to learn all that is known about the chemical structure of stars; and if not the organized beings themselves, then at least their poten- tial habitats. This is really an existential issue, and Comte's failure is one that we may well be struggling through as an industry right now— and we wouldn't even know it. As a moonshot example, in current materials physics, the highest operational transition tem- perature observed for an intact superconductor has been approximately 250°K for pressurized lanthanum decahydride (LaH 10 ). While this transition temperature is within reach of sys- tems operating in permanent installations that have access to even somewhat-robust cooling and pressurization systems, it is a far cry from what would be needed to work effectively as an everyday conductor replacement in con- sumer electronics. (Yes, I realize that there are plenty of areas where we want latency, but please, for the sake of the example!) If you ask any materials engineer or solid-state physicist whether we will have true room-temperature superconducting materials within their life- time, if at all, they will scramble to hand you a BCS Theory for Dummies before laughing themselves unconscious. But then again, what if tomorrow, a uni- versity lab churns out the right topology of graphene that allows for room-temperature superconductivity? What if this is easily repro- ducible in commercial and academic labs the world over? The overtime at the patent office will be great for its employees, and those sci- entists and physicists who laughed themselves unconscious will quickly sober up before revel- ing in the new discovery and designing experi- ments of their own. As Clarke defines it, a failure of nerve "occurs when even given all the relevant facts, the would-be prophet cannot see that they point to an inescapable conclusion."

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of Design007 Magazine - Design007-Nov2020