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Am I Sending Pens To Space?
Some stories are just too good to be true.
This was my initial reaction upon reading about NASA’s issue with pens. In space.
Here’s a quick summary from Scientific American:
“During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.”
The version I read mentioned that NASA scientists eventually settled on some kind of nitrogen-powered mechanism that would literally force the ink downwards and onto the paper.
Everything about this story is perfect – and it seems perfect for illustrating a very specific kind of lesson.
Of course, the world is not so kind.
As Scientific American continues:
“Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.”
Regardless of whether it’s complete bullshit or not – as, I would wager, most morality tales are – the lesson remains:
We love complex solutions to simple problems.
Why is that, exactly?
My guess is that there’s a few forces at play – but the main two I can see:
- Simplicity is more confusing than we expect.
- The questions we ask shape the answers we come up with.
Let’s start with the second point, since this is…you know. The Better Questions email.
Let me paraphrase Nassim Taleb, who, in Antifragile, paraphrases his character Fat Tony:
“Every question has, within it, the seed of it’s own answer.”
And since humans are problem solving creatures, it’s very easy to jump to “finding the answer” before we ever “analyze the question.”
This makes us easily led, and easily misled.
It’s also one of the reasons I particularly enjoy the “Trolley Problem” memes.
The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical quandary, which Wikipedia summarizes:
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:
- Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.
- Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.
Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?”
While the formal trolley problem can seem a bit dour, the Trolley Problem MEME turns it on its head by rejecting the duality of the question and positing any number of humorous or absurd problems and outcomes.
The humor – for me, anyway – rests on the idea of subverting the question itself, rather than putting yourself in knots trying to come up with the “right” answer.
Similarly, you get very different outcomes if you ask “How do we make pens work in space?” or “how do I most conveniently write in space?”
It’s important to take a moment and analyze the questions people ask you…and wonder what assumptions are embedded within.
Which brings us to the next force pushing us towards complexity:
The fear of simplicity.
It’s possible we lean on “complex” solutions because nothing scares us more than the complexity of the simple.
What happens if we do the “simple” thing and it doesn’t work?
The more time we spend planning, building, complicating…
The less time we spend throwing our ideas against the walls of reality and seeing what sticks.
The feedback we get is far too often, “Hey – you don’t even understand the basics.”
No point in making an elaborate diet plan involving limiting specific types of macros…
If you can’t simply measure what you eat.
Or control your food choices.
And so on.
The simple is more complex than we give it credit for…
And our retreat to complexity is based more often on fear than it is on sophistication.
So, ask yourself:
Am I sending pens to space?1
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