Oh No, You Can't!
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“You can’t do that!” went the cry. Throughout the history of science, there has been no shortage of eminent experts who have decreed some progression or line of thought to be impossible. Of course, science is rooted in fact. We know how and why gravity holds us to the surface of the planet and why our planet orbits the sun. Science has rules and constants and proofs. They are what allow knowledge to progress.
Until a few hundred years ago, it was widely held that the earth was flat, that the sun orbited our planet and that man would never be able to fly. Partly, we believe these things because we’re not always expert at reading the data. And sometimes it’s because the knowledge we have points to a certain conclusion. But as science advances and our knowledge expands, we sometimes find that our observation and hypotheses, as carefully calibrated as they were, simply did not tell the whole story.
Thanks to human ingenuity, it doesn’t take centuries for us to re-invent the wheel. Sometimes it can happen in a decade or less. Take the mobile phones of the 1980s as an example. They were a shining example of modernity and individuality. Batteries and microchips combined into a form so compact you could almost fit it in a pocket. A phone that needed no wires and allowed its user to be contacted anywhere and at any time.
Today’s smartphones, by comparison, are more powerful than most of the desktop and home PCs we had access to in the 1980s. Indeed, if you followed the model of the time-travelling movie Back to the Future and returned to the 1980s and tried to build an iPhone or Android smartphone you would find it impossible. The capacitive touchscreens we use to navigate the devices, the miniature gyroscopes and accelerometers that govern screen orientation and gaming, the flash memory for storing system files, music and memory: none of it existed beyond theory and some research papers.
Yet, smartphones are everyday items for many of us, more ubiquitous than the status symbol cell phones of the 1980s. Back in 1920, an even larger technology was decried by none other than the venerable New York Times newspaper. Rockets would never be able to make it to the moon, the paper declared, having misunderstood the principles of acceleration in a vacuum.1
And though the science was solid, there were still many obstacles in the path of those pioneers. Developing materials that would shield the craft from burning up as it exited and re-entered earth’s orbit. How to send signals that would either control a remote craft or allow near-instant communication with a piloted one. And how people would cope with the extreme gravitational forces created at lift-off.
While certainly not commonplace, space flight is part of our contemporary landscape, mainly to deliver satellites into orbit above our heads, which in turn send down torrents of data about our planet telling us about its weather patterns, or beaming back TV transmissions and in some cases sending back sensitive military information and even recording pictures.
The history of science is littered with similar examples. Some held that fast cars and trains would cause suffocation of drivers and passengers, as wind would paralyse their lungs. Splitting the atom was a pipe dream. X-rays a hoax. Sending moving pictures through the air a childish fantasy. Like a jigsaw missing a piece, these developments are all part of our daily landscape.
Even knowledge itself. While no one will claim that Wikipedia is to be taken at face value, its success over the last decade is nothing short of astonishing. Until then, the biggest trove of personal knowledge any of us would be likely to own was a set of encyclopaedia. Now we have seemingly endless knowledge at our fingertips. Almost 20 million entries, in approximately 300 languages, overseen by close to 90,000 volunteer editors. If you told a mobile phone owner in the 1980s that they would soon be reading an encyclopaedia on its screen they would probably have laughed.
So the next time someone categorically states that you can’t do something, don’t take their word for it. Do your own research. Check the science. If necessary, make that breakthrough yourself.
1Source: Impossible Inventions (New Scientist Magazine, October 8 2011)