Sunday, October 4, 2009

Without "Big Science"

I have just crossed the country by car and have been thinking along the way of a chapter on creativity and dyslexia that I have been asked to write for a new book to be published in Britain. In so doing my thoughts have returned repeatedly to a bit of research I did on the Wright Brothers--a story that is far more interesting and timely than one might suppose. The following is based on an early version of this story:

Today, it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that virtually all science of consequence is "big science." There seems to be nearly a universal belief that nothing of importance can be done without large a research staff, expensive equipment and a massive budget. It may be true that much of modern science and technology requires such investment, but not, perhaps, in every case. There are a few counter examples to be considered.

One example that comes from the historical pantheon of American technological heroes: An illustration of what common sense and basic capabilities and determined effort may accomplish, where experts with conventional research programs or gentlemen enthusiasts with grandstand performances had failed repeatedly, is provided by the example of the Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Periodically, there seems to come a time when all the tools and techniques become available for relatively ordinary people to draw together what they need in some novel new way. Once these circumstances converge, then the major additional needed ingredient is mainly effort--determined, focused, passionate and unrelenting--along with a willingness to risk many small failures in order to inch forward into unknown territory through a good deal of trial and error.

The Wrights had only their bicycle business and such tools and skills and income that this business made available to them. Yet, with these modest resources, they took what was essentially an off-season hobby and turned it into a dramatically successful achievement, one that had previously eluded all the professional efforts.

(There is an aspect of evolutionary selection here as well. It matters most of all, perhaps, that at a particular time and place all the resources to do a job are widely available. Many will fail. A few will succeed. But with widely distributed capabilities, the whole enterprise moves ahead at a much more rapid rate. During the late nineteenth century, we are told, the total number of inventions and patents increased dramatically. The number of foolish inventions also increased greatly. But what is more important is that the number of really good inventions increased greatly as well.)

Neither Wilbur nor Orville Wright ever finished high school, although other members of the family were college educated. (There is no evidence of learning disabilities in either brother.) Their father was an educated religious leader and administrator, a traveling Bishop of the United Brethren in Christ. Their sister eventually attended Oberlin College to earn her teaching credentials.
The brothers initially went into business as job printers and publishers of several small local newspapers but they eventually stumbled into the suddenly popular and modestly profitable bicycle business that started to flourish in the early 1890s. The business involved bicycle sales (with weekly-installment payments), rental and repair in the summer with cottage industry manufacturing in the winter. The manufacturing operation was easily run by the two brothers, who were observed to "combine mechanical ability with intelligence in about equal amounts." An old school friend who had originally joined their printing operation did the final bicycle assembly. Orville operated the enameling oven while Wilbur did the brazing using a brazier that they had designed themselves.

There seemed to be a relatively aimless quality about the young adult years of the two brothers in Dayton. Their printing business was in part a continuation of Orville's summer job in high school years. Off and on Wilbur had considered going to college. But in high school a sporting injury and a "vaguely defined" heart ailment caused Wilbur to drop this plan and he stayed at home for several years, partly taking care of his semi-invalid mother until her death in 1889--while his father's work continued to require extensive travel and long absences from home.

Wilbur's slow recovery and apparent lack of drive during these years exasperated his brother Reuchlin who had married and moved to Kansas City. He could not understand how it was that Wilbur stayed at home for so long just reading and taking care of his ailing mother. Reuchlin wrote their sister Katharine: "What does Will do? . . . He ought to do something. Is he still cook and chambermaid?" This is not exactly the expected beginning for the senior member of the two originators of the dashing and daring field of early aviation.

Without formal training or special resources, the self-taught Wrights seemed to have all they needed. Each necessary task was dealt with in a straight forward way with the resources commonly available and readily at hand. When they needed a windy site for their earliest glider experiments, they simply wrote to the U.S. Weather Service. Their early experiments were essentially large-scale kite experiments, but these yielded important information on lift, more efficient wing shapes and novel devices for control in all three dimensions.

Unlike many other early experimenters in aircraft design, they knew that they needed to teach themselves how to control the aircraft first. Consequently, well before employing an engine, they took many short gliding practice flights down a large sand dune to develop their own reflexes and the essential skills--to give themselves some time to learn by trial and error the "feel" of the machine and controls.

They found that the tables on wing shape and lift published by a German engineer and professor were wrong, so they devised their own, partly from their own wind tunnel, itself made from simple parts, to their own design. Indeed, in time, they came to distrust any data they had not tested themselves.

They could find no automobile company willing to make the light and powerful engine they required, so they made their own engine to their own design, largely in their own shop, with the help of the machinist who worked in their bicycle business. At the time, it was falsely believed that air propellers were similar to water propellers. Consequently, the brothers found that they had to devise their own theory as well as develop their own design for the propellers needed to drive their machine. And throughout their flying experiments, they took photographs of everything they did so they could access their progress and make a permanent record of their achievements.

Those who are familiar with the way such a project would be staffed today--with teams of highly-paid experts in dozens of fields--can easily see how rapidly budgets and development schedules for such an undertaking would expand.

Of course, a very great deal more is known now in many fields than was known then. But at the edge of the new, the situation (now as then) may not be as different as it might appear at first. Small determined groups with fresh ideas (although less well educated and less experienced) may still move more rapidly and effectively than large ones. Today's commercial developers of powerful software for personal computers, for example, find that errors, communication problems and developmental delays increase dramatically if they employ more than a few programmers on a given project (or module of a larger project).

In this connection, it is worth recalling that the first real personal computer was developed not by a large, well-established computer company, but by two counter-culture adolescents in their now-famous garage, largely using parts available to hobbyists. Sometimes it is good not to be an expert, not to know too much. Sometimes it is far more important to have a vision and to be willing to learn by taking risks and making mistakes that experts would not make. Sometimes it is good not to know beforehand all the reasons why it will never work and why it will never sell.

In the time of the Wrights, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Langley, a respected engineer and scientist, obtained a sizable grant of $50,000 from the War Department to develop a heavier-than-air aircraft, but his experiments sank in the Potomac, with "howls of derision from all quarters." Wilbur and Orville financed their experiments entirely out of their own modest personal resources and at a small fraction of the cost of the fully-funded professional effort.

But, we might ask, are not the efforts of the Wrights more that a hundred years ago really quite irrelevant to the realities of our times? In some ways yes. In some ways no. Sometimes the most effective barrier is, as usual, the simple belief that it cannot be done.

Perhaps, we need now to consider if we might not be at the beginning of a period in some important ways comparable to the time of the Wrights. In their own time, the Wrights had in their hands all the mechanical tools and skills needed for their novel task. Today, as more and more powerful electronic tools and skills become increasingly available in the hands of ordinary people (hobbyists and hackers in their garages, basements and bedrooms), one wonders what determined individuals and small groups might be able to accomplish where the great companies and laboratories have so far failed--or what they might discover that would never have occurred to fully-qualified workers in well-funded research laboratories (where perhaps there is a much greater tendency to take fewer risks and fail less often).

In the time of the Wrights, sophisticated mechanical capabilities had become widely available at modest cost to comparatively ordinary people-- without special education or facilities. Today, highly sophisticated electronic capabilities are becoming widely available at modest cost to these same comparatively ordinary people.

On reflection, perhaps it is only a matter of time before we should expect modern-day electronic Wrights to devise some truly new things--perhaps things as yet unimagined by the professionals, or in areas where were highly-trained teams from "big science" and "big technology" have repeatedly failed before.

They may not have the expensive equipment or the big budgets, but if they are really original, they may find a totally new way of doing the job-- and with far more modest resources. Sometimes, perhaps even now, what is needed is not so much big budgets, but big visions and a willingness to fail.

Based on Chapter 8, In the Mind’s Eye.

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