Possible & implausible

Elon Musk's most recent TED talk inspired me. Why? A rocket four times the thrust of the previous record is planned to launch humans to Mars in just eight years. A 10x reduction in tunneling costs will enable 100+ mph travel underneath major cities. Beautiful, unbreakable solar roof tiles will reduce energy costs and emissions. A cross-country autonomous trip will happen before 2017 ends.

Such boldness from anyone else would make me skeptical, but Musk and his team seem to have the skills required for these tasks. Best of luck to them!

Given how unusual it is to hear talk of this kind, what's the lesson to be learned? Are most people just not trying hard enough? Are we right when our common sense has us raise an eyebrow when anyone aims too high? Do we too easily give up on implausible ideas?

Plausibility is just a heuristic, after all. It's to do with questions like, "Can I imagine a way to do it?" and "Has it been done before?" For any new idea, most people won't have heard of anything like it, or know how to make it happen, so it will seem implausible to them. It could, however, still be possible. In the infinite space of possible and desirable transformations, most have never been tried or even thought of, and are therefore implausible.

The upshot is this: an idea isn't dead upon being pronounced implausible. Instead, the goal should be to find out why the thing has never been done before. Perhaps there is some fundamental physical constraint, but perhaps not, in which case you may want to pursue it!

I think this way of handling existing ideas is part of what makes Musk's talk so encouraging. He states an idea, sometimes with a laugh from the audience, since he and they realize the implausibility of it. Then the important thing happens. He explains the physics of the situation (e.g. If you halve the diameter of a tunnel, you quarter the cross-sectional area. Since cost is proportional to area, you also quarter the cost, making the project cost-effective.)

There is another aspect of Musk's thinking that inspires me. Seeing a problem, he thinks "Maybe I could solve it." I think the more common response to a problem is to ignore it, become frustrated, or hope someone else would take care of it. Maybe those are reasonable responses, since no one has the time to try solving every problem they come across. Still, success can't be had without trying.

In the end, I think there are two winning phrases to keep in mind:

  1. Maybe I could solve the problem.
  2. Even if my solution is implausible, is it possible?
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