A New Kind of Rocket Science

Somewhere in the wee hours between Sunday night and Monday morning, the rover Curiosity landed successfully on Mars to much fanfare.  It’s impossible not be thrilled and awed at this accomplishment, and depending on your point of view, it proves that US scores on PISA etc. either matter very little (we rank near the bottom on math tests, but we can parachute a dune buggy onto the surface of Mars, motherfucker!) or they’re evidence that we’d better get our act together so we can continue to maintain this level of global dominance.

I have trouble getting behind either argument.  It seems to me that given our higher education juggernaut and our willingness to spend money on accomplishing such a dramatic feat, it just doesn’t feel so impossible that we would.  I’m not trying to imply that I don’t get gleeful chills when I look at the images from the Mars rover, it’s just that in order to get this job done, we had to make extraordinarily careful use of a great deal of known science.  As complex as the interactions between all the laws of physics may be, the laws themselves remain finite, knowable, and even simple parts.  Given the time, the resources, and the brainpower, we can figure how to time things just right and get to Mars.

With that in mind, I keep thinking of a passage from the set up to Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts, published last year.  I discovered the book by following Jason’s Breadcrumbs toward Grace’s post on sense-making.  The book is pretty hit or miss, and I’ve been reading it a bit at a time in between some of my more engaging summer reads.  Here is the big idea that’s had me going:

Policy makers designing new schemes to drive down healthcare costs or to improve teaching quality in public schools or to reduce smoking or to improve energy conservation already feel that they can do a reasonable job of getting the incentives right.  Typically people in these positions do not expect to get everything right all the time.  But they also feel that the problems they are contemplating are mostly within their ability to solve–that “it’s not rocket science,” as it were.  Well, I’m no rocket scientist, and I have immense respect for the people who can land a machine the size of a small car on another planet.  But the sad fact is that we’re actually much better at planning the flight path of an interplanetary rocket than we are at managing the economy, merging two corporations, or even predicting how many of a book will sell.  So why is it that rocket science seems hard, whereas problems having to do with people–which arguably are much harder–seem like they ought to be just a matter of common sense?

With regards to the Mars rover Curiosity, rocket science remains an enormously complex task, and those rocket scientists are worthy of the respect we afford them every time we say that something else is not their work.  But given human understanding of physics, it is imminently possible.

Other problems are so much more difficult.  At the frontiers of social science, how can we try to ensure that every child born has access to a healthy, happy life?  At this turning point in the history of our planet, how can we stare down the possibility of catastrophic climate change, without being crippled by visions of the apocalypse?  When corporations are sitting on unprecedented cash reserves while people remain jobless and hungry, how can we best allocate resources and give people work to do while maintaining the confidence of investors that their speculations are worth it?  There is so much unknown, and it’s going to take a lot a brave tinkering to help so many of us find our places in this befuddling world.

So as a math teacher, what is my role?  There is the popular STEM push for preparing our great engineers and future rocket scientists.  I’m intimately involved with this push, and I’m behind it wholeheartedly.  But it would be folly to say that my goal is to prepare every kid to be a great engineer.

What about all the other kinds of problem solvers we need?

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