Monday, July 18, 2011

Why I'm an Optimist

Image Credit

I've noticed something of a gloomy trend in the last few posts, and I'd like to address that. I haven't been happy about a number of things in my life lately, mainly because I have a relentless impulse to criticize myself. Looking back on things like letting a few grades slip during my last semester in college and moving into an apartment that's way to expensive for the summer because I was too lazy to look around more thoroughly makes me cringe, as trivial as these events are in the long run. Though I don't always do a great job of fully internalizing it, in my more level-headed moods I think the evidence abounds that there's good reason to be joyful and optimistic about the future, in spite of whatever tone you may have perceived up to now.

As I noted before, there are considerable limits to what anyone, person or organization can do. But just as surely as those limits exist, we can't possibly know the extent of those limits until they're under test. More to the point, I think it's wrong to assume that limitations are static things that forever bound our field of motion. When pressed, barriers can be broken down, or at least a detour can be found. Reading the history of some of the great scientific and engineering triumphs, the Wrights' innovations in powered flight for example, it's hard not to get a heady sense of the understanding and practical delivery that can be gleaned from nature with enough persistence and cleverness. We once new nothing of the scale of the universe, the workings of the atoms, or the way a clock slows down when launched into orbit. Now their discoveries are historical footnotes. This is the power of human ingenuity.

I'm not saying that the progress of science is endless and will eventually steamroll over any need to understand things beyond pure rationality. That would be overconfident, and worse, wrong. There are clear boundaries to what the scientific method and the progression of logic are capable of uncovering, though those boundaries are so far from the borders of our current understanding that the scientist needn't concern herself with running into them anytime soon. What I'm getting at is that each human is capable of dipping into this font of wellness and progress and helping to move us all forward. If that's not optimistic, I don't know what is.

When you run, you're bound to falter every once in a while. I'm often much more apathetic and lazy than I'm comfortable admitting and will put off tasks I find dull until they're infuriatingly behind schedule. My social awkwardness keeps me from fully engaging those around me. I regularly fail to heed the advice I wish to take from the sermons of Jesus, to say nothing of my ongoing failure to resolve how I should even look at these sermons to begin with. But though I falter regularly, I know (or at least like to tell myself) it's because I keep running. There's a lot of ground to cover, but humans can move remarkably fast when we want to. I find Mario Andretti's insight that "if you feel like you're still in control, you're not going fast enough," relevant fairly often. Pessimism seems absurd given this insight.

After the third Falcon 1 launch failed to reach orbit, and his critics were breathlessly asking if he was capable of delivering on any of his promises to radically change the launch industry, Elon Musk had this to say when asked whether he was optimistic about future attempts to reach orbit:

"Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we're going to make it happen. With God as my bloody witness, I'm hell-bent on making it work."

Falcon 1's fourth flight (and every SpaeX launch since) was an unqualified success. There's something to be said for the Musk approach.

No comments:

Post a Comment