Giant Leaps by Small Steps

Reconciling Bronowski and Myers

by David E Romm

In "The Reach of Imagination", Jacob Bronowski posits: "...human reason discovers new relations between things not by deduction, but by that unpredictable blend of speculation and insight that scientists call induction which -- like other forms of imagination -- cannot be formalized." And yet in "Text as Knowledge Claims: The Social Construction of Two Biology Articles", Greg Myers quotes a peer review from a scientific paper, "If the author is to have his observations seriously evaluated by others in the field, it is important that he not present himself as being overly speculative". Can Bronowski's unbound enthusiasm be reconciled with the methodical plodding of science as described by Myers? I contend that they can... and they must.

To have a great idea is not enough. One must prove an idea is valid: test parameters, place context, establish precisely how and when this idea applies. But the initial speculation can be very broad. It's the proof that has to be detailed.

Darwin's Theory of Evolution was a very broad speculation. It would not have been accepted at all if he hadn't gone to the Galapagos Islands and looked at dozens of species of animals. His examples were detailed enough to stand up to criticism, then and now, with only minor adjustments in aspects of the theory.

That DNA contained the means by which genetic information was transmitted was an important speculation. But it was only a scientific curiosity until Watson and Crick found the important implementation details of how DNA works.

Let's take perhaps humankind's biggest scientific and technological achievement and show some of the intermediate steps that made it possible. President John F. Kennedy committed the US to "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" before the 1960's ended. This was a big boast, implying we had (or would acquire) the science necessary for such a technological feet. At the time, May 25, 1961, the Soviets had put one man in a brief orbit and the US had made one suborbital rocket flight. Kennedy's commitment was large. Rhetorically, it was another shot in the propaganda battle between the US and the Soviet Union. They had scored points by launching the first satellite and the first manned rocket. Kennedy talked big. Now, we needed to live up to his enthusiasm.

The US didn't just start the Apollo program. We went with smaller steps. First, we caught up with Soviet technology in the single-manned Project Mercury. Mercury proved we could launch rockets in space, and that astronauts could be more than just payload. A series of Mercury flights increased our knowledge about how long we could remain in space and how space would affect humans.

The Gemini Program expanded our testing and our knowledge. Two astronauts went into space at a time. We learned about teamwork, Extra Vehicular Activity (walking in space!), docking procedures, and so on. All while we were honing our technological skills and biological data.

Parallel to the manned programs, unmanned probes were sent to map the moon more thoroughly. Robotic spacecraft -- Rangers, Surveyors and Lunar Orbiters -- examined the moon in preparation for exploration by astronauts. Scientific probes were sent to Mars and Venus to extend our understanding of the solar system.

Much planning went into just how we would get to the moon. The standard science fiction model was: A big rocket, with fins, taking off from the Earth and landing fins down on the moon. This wasn't deemed practical. After much research and number crunching we arrived at a very different concept: A multi-staged rocket that discarded empty fuel containers, with only part of the crew landing on the moon.

The Apollo Program itself was a series of small steps: Proving that we could launch three people in one capsule. Sending a spacecraft around the moon, without landing, just to make sure we could. Not all steps were positive: The fire in the Apollo 1 capsule killed three astronauts, and we learned not to use 100% oxygen. We learned to be very specific and precise. And then, finally, the payoff. Kennedy's grand speculation about the science of space travel saw fruition on July 20, 1969 when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down in the Lunar Module Eagle. The theory had been proven empirically. The boast became a brag.

What started off as Cold War propaganda, intended mainly to demonstrate that our nuclear missiles were better than the Soviets, has had a tremendous impact in almost all aspects of human life. Small steps to the moon took us on paths we all walk today. The massive scientific effort of required for the space program led to ARPA which led to ARPAnet which led to the Internet. Telemetric monitoring of biological functions in space revamped Emergency Rooms and Intensive Care Units, and led to other medical advances. We picked up vast knowledge of satellite technology that led to communications and weather satellites that unite the world and tell us how to dress for the day. Advances in metallurgy, miniaturization, agronomy, history and much more can be traced to the small steps necessary to achieve the grand plan.

Unbound enthusiasm tempered with plodding methodology: Don't leave Earth without it.

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