15

Weigh Ideas

All ideas are not created equal. Some ideas are better than others. When you see a good idea, you recognize its quality immediately. (For a book-long, stirring essay on quality, read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.)

Lack of quality is easy to spot. Maybe you noticed how poorly designed your coffeemaker is: how the pot dribbles down its side and onto your sock, how hot scalding vapors rise up and burn your hand while you're holding the flimsy plastic handle, how god-awful it is to clean.

This coffeemaker is an example of theory with no practice, a manufactured idea with no discrimination. The coffeemaker might look niceā€”but it doesn't work. The inventor (if he deserves the name) never used his coffeemaker and it shows.

The "proof is in the pudding" means you have to taste it. Once you put it in your mouth, judgment soon follows.

The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, made it a constant theme of his writing that the "weighing of ideas" is the essence of real thinking. The longest reigning chess champion in history, Dr. Emanuel Lasker, once said, "When you find a good move, look for a better one!"

The weighing of ideas, the selection of better over good, is the balancing process that must follow brainstorming. The products of the unfettered imagination are judged coolly and soberly, without prejudice.

When people talk about imagination, they often have very foggy notions of what it is. It is commonly assumed that being imaginative means being fanciful, undisciplined, even flighty. But when rocket scientists use the word "imagine," they mean something more precise. They mean to picture a space mission that is really possible. They don't consider using antigravity, or warp drive, or pixie dust as a means to deliver their next spacecraft to Saturn. They have what I call an "accurate imagination." They temper their fondest dreams with a cold splash of reality. That's because rocket scientists want to live in the real world, not the virtual world. Sure they love science fiction and video games, but more than anything, they want the real thing.

Rocket scientists know, as Carl Sagan said, that "space is a place." They really want to go there and they know they can. But they're not depending on the Star Trek transporter to beam them there. John Kennedy would understand these rocket scientists. He said of himself, "I'm an optimist without illusions."

PART III

"The 'silly' question is the first intimation of some totally new development."

Alfred North Whitehead

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