Look at the Little Picture

The preferred method of virtually all science is to break a problem down to its simplest component parts: to look at the little picture. Although sometimes referred to disparagingly as "reductionism," there can be little doubt of its success or power.

In the delightful movie Creator, Peter O'Toole plays a Nobel prize-winning professor who carries his deceased wife's cells around in a thermos bottle in hopes that he can someday re-create her. He's a charming eccentric who reminds everyone he talks to that he is "looking for the Big Picture." At one point, he puts his philosophy into the most dramatic metaphor he can think of: "I want to know what God's testicles are doing!"

His rival colleague, another professor, counters with, "There's no such thing as the Big Picture. There's just a bunch of little ones."

The rocket scientist, however, realizes that both modes of thinking are crucial to the success of a space mission.

Henry Ford said that every problem, however complex, can be broken down into a series of simple steps. He proved his vision by developing the assembly line and putting America on wheels. Ford's divide-and-conquer scheme made it possible to build automobiles by the million. In Rocket Man, David Clary reports that Robert Goddard had boiled down space travel to just twenty-six steps. (Clary tells the story of America's first rocket man brilliantly, humorously, and entertainingly.)

The idea of reductionism goes back to the ancient Greeks. In the fifth century B.C., Democritus thought about cutting an object into halves, then cutting the halves in half, and continuing the process until he obtained particles that could not be cut in two. He named these particles "atoms," which means "indivisibles." Dem-ocritus believed that our entire universe was built up by the collection of a vast number of atoms and the void between them.

There is an old story of six blind men who examine an elephant. The first man announced, after touching the elephant's side, "The elephant is like a wall." The second blind man, who had been examining the elephant's tusk, declared, "The elephant is like a spear." The blind man at the elephant's trunk determined, "The elephant is like a snake," while the man at the elephant's knee proclaimed, "The elephant is like a tree." The fifth man, feeling the elephant's ear concluded, "The elephant is like a fan." The sixth at the elephant's tail said, "The elephant is like a rope." All of the blind men were right about certain aspects of the elephant. But none of them had the Big Picture. (How could they? They were all blind.) The moral of this story is, of course, a warning about reductionism. None of the blind men had the whole elephant. And everyone knows the elephant is more than the sum of its parts.

Rocket scientists understand this caveat. They must deal with a myriad of little pictures. Each of the component parts must work so that the little pictures will add up to the Big Picture—the exploration of space.

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