Do Something

Two mission designers—one a mathematical type, the other a visualizer—were designing complex trajectory scenarios for a future interplanetary space probe.

The math type knew the equations of motion and the theories of celestial mechanics; he had done a Ph.D. thesis on the subject. But in spite of his wealth of knowledge, or perhaps because of it, he sat at his computer terminal, paralyzed. Many thoughts ran through his head. He analyzed what would happen for a number of ideas as they occurred to him. He was like a chess player in deep thought, thinking of moves, imagining the problems with each move, and then rejecting each move one by one. "If I try this," he said to himself, "then it won't work because blah, blah, blah . . . But if I do that it will lead to this other problem ... I could try this other idea, but then I paint myself into a corner because of this. . . ."

He sat frozen in front of his keyboard. He'd type a few keystrokes into his trajectory simulator, which would calculate potential orbits for the spacecraft. But then he'd hit the backspace key and stop. He had great difficulties designing a good trajectory for the future space mission.

The other designer rolled up his sleeves and tried things. He didn't worry too much about the results; he just punched away at his keyboard and let the trajectory simulator fly. He made plenty of mistakes, but he also made a lot of progress. He was a fast typist, but more important, he was a keen observer of the results and patterns that showed up on his computer screen. He designed several excellent mission scenarios that the project managers liked.

The first designer had to learn, painfully, to give up his mathematical perfectionism and to try new things; to proceed without a theory, to learn from experience. He had to learn that he was dealing with a complex system from which new properties could emerge. These properties could not easily be predicted from the theories of celestial mechanics that he had studied in his doctoral thesis.

Recently, a new field called complexity theory has begun to provide insights into nonlinear systems and how order can emerge from chaos. The second designer intuitively knew to look for such patterns. He followed the thinking style of the Synthesist, as described by Harrison and Bramson.

In this case, the Synthesist made a better rocket scientist than the Analyst (the first designer). The Synthesist didn't just sit there—he did something.

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