SIMPLICITY AT PLAY: IGNITING BREAKTHROUGHS WITH FIRST PRINCIPLES

By Anjana Agarwal

Originality consists of returning to the origin.

-Antoni Gaudi

Moonshots are called moonshots for a reason. It translates into taking on ground-breaking projects without any expectation of near-term profitability or success. Much like trying to win in a race which has no starting line. Where do you begin running?

Human beings are terrified of venturing into the land of the unknown. Launching a rocket into space is fraught with uncertainty and rocket scientists are regarded for planning these miracles into existence. The phrase “It’s not hard, it’s just rocket science,” symbolizes the capacity of these engineers to dance with an unconceivable degree of uncertainty. Their ability to make the most out of it is not fueled by the desire of a quick deliverance but by intrigue like that of an explorer, wanting to know what lies ahead. We humans are programmed to chase certainty all our lives and in doing so we curb our world from ‘what could have been’ to ‘whatever we choose to settle for’ in the name of stability. Without realizing this people become ‘passive observers’ as opposed to ‘active interveners’ in their lives.

Sometimes you must start running before you can see a clear path, but with proper margins of safety. Both rocket science and machine learning stem from the root of first principles thinking. It is referred to as, ‘starting from the very first thing we know to be absolutely true.’ First principles thinking can be a crucial tool in the toolkit of an engineer. Reasoning from first principles requires breaking down a problem into fundamental blocks and then asking the vital questions, separating facts from assumptions, and then building the model from there. It is also about understanding that our experiences may be different from the absolute truth and about filling incremental gaps in our knowledge. This ‘re-architect’ approach of thinking opens a beautiful world of opportunities for engineers as they are now able to integrate different ideas together. They now, instead of focusing on ‘what exists’ are now able to give attention to ‘what’s possible.’

First Earth Rise, Apollo 8, 1968

When solving a problem, the simplest solution available should be considered. As Carl Sagan puts it: “When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler.” In other words, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not unicorns.” A simple machine or model also has fewer points of failure. Take Apollo 8 for example, that spacecraft had 5.6 million components. So, even if everything worked with 99.9 percent accuracy, the scientists could still expect 5,600 defects. Remember, the taller the Jenga tower the more fragile it is.

Knowledge is good, knowledge is power, but knowledge can also make you a slave to convention. And conventional thinking can only give you expected results. Knowledge is useful as long as it helps you grow, not when it constrains you to something obscure. SpaceX is famous for its unconventional approaches when comes to building rockets. For example, unlike all other aerospace companies that build their vehicles vertically- the same position they will be launched- Musk’s people construct their spacecrafts horizontally. Their unique orientation allows the company to use regular warehouse removing the need to build a skyscraper all while reducing safety risks of people dangling from the roof trying to build the rocket.

The head of X, Google’s moonshot factory writes “When you try to improve on existing techniques, you’re in a smartness contest with everyone who came before you. Not a good contest to be in.” Musk faced the same dilemma when he first stepped foot in the aerospace industry, but his first principles approach made him a trailblazer, forging a path of his own. SpaceX engineers are often labelled as ‘notorious’ for borrowing parts from other industries. Instead of using expensive tools to build handles for hatches, the company used parts of bathroom stall latches. Instead of designing costly custom-built harnesses for astronauts, they use race-car safety belts, which are even more comfortable and less expensive.

How often do we think, “Do I own the process, or does the process own me?” Escaping our own unconscious assumptions can be a mission only some of us can achieve in our lifetimes. How can you play the role of an antagonist in a story where you can only see yourself as the hero? Every now and then we must destroy things to rebuild them better. In order to discover yourself, you must be able risk your significance. Giant leaps can also result in giant falls, but if it were not for those giant leaps man would still be on the ground. One of the Wright Brothers puts it well: “If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would little hope of advance.”

Reference: Varol, Ozan. Think Like a Rocket Scientist. 2020.

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