Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pushing the envelope

Most people who follow the space program have heard of the term "the right stuff".  There was a movie made by that name, which I've had for awhile, but watched again just recently.  The movie setting begins in 1947 and that's about the time that the sound barrier was being challenged.  At the time, nobody knew for certain what would happen when the sound barrier was reached.  There were those who believed that this was impossible.  Over history, many things that were said to be impossible weren't impossible after all. 

The Wright Brothers' feat of heavier than air flight was once considered impossible too.   But less than a half century after doing that impossible feat, the sound barrier was next.   The men challenging the sound barrier were test pilots and it was in their spirit to push the envelope.  After seeing this spirit just the other night, I was wondering, what happened?   Less than a half century after the Wright Brothers the envelope was still being pushed, but nearly a half century after walking on the moon, why isn't the envelope being pushed today?

Perhaps it's because we have become something of a risk averse society.  Pushing the envelope is dangerous.  Many test pilots lost their lives pushing that envelope.  But the rewards were great.  If the envelope wasn't pushed by men like these, we may still be on the ground.  You could even say that without pushing the envelope throughout history, we may alll be living in caves.  Pushing the envelope is necessary to progress, playing it safe comes at a cost.  Even if lives are saved by playing it safe, the safety may impose a much greater cost in the future.

With respect to progress, there are more barriers that need to be overcome that do not necessarily mean the risk to life.  What about the risks to one's career or to one's financial well being?  In such cases, a risky move could be one that advocates an untried method or system which may or may not work.  I am thinking of cold fusion.  Many scientists pushed that envelope and some paid a heavy price for their refusal to back down to the dangers of researching that field.  It was a real risk because look what happened to Fleischmann and Pons, who were a bit too bold for their own good.  They claimed that the heat anomaly that they observed was due to a new and unknown process which came to be known as cold fusion.  They were accused of being frauds and incompetents and their careers were ruined.  Yet, in spite of this, research continued.  Now, with Rossi's E-cat, there may be a commercial product on the horizon.  But the catcalls continue.  The disbelief in this new form of energy seems to form a real barrier to progress.  Some boldness is required in order to overcome the latest barrier.

Maybe we don't need astronauts nor test pilots for this, but we do need that sort of courage.  Playing it safe just won't do.  The envelope must be pushed.

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