Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life

Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life

by Ozan Varol

This book will teach you how to make the impossible possible by transforming it into a series of interrelated achievable tasks. Ozan Varol provides us with nine principles that can guide us to grasp and use the thinking process of a rocket scientist. The methods he teaches throughout the book are useful for more than engineering. They can be applied in becoming a better businessman, layer, athlete, and in pretty much any other area of life that you can imagine. Learning to think like a rocket scientist helps you become a better thinker overall.

Summary Notes

Admitting Ignorance is Essential for Learning and Growth

Embracing uncertainty is essential for making progress. In 1996, scientists found organic molecules of biological origin in a Martian meteorite, ALH 84001. This discovery was widely reported as evidence of life on another planet, but the evidence was inconclusive. Even after two decades, the uncertainty remains. Ozan Varol pointed out that our fixation on certainty can lead us astray, and all progress is made in uncertain conditions. Einstein's biggest mistake was trying to make something appear definite when it wasn't.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists and engineers work on interplanetary spacecraft. During a Mars landing, the mission support area is filled with people monitoring data. It takes 12 minutes for a signal from Mars to reach Earth, and 6 minutes for a spacecraft to descend from the top of the Martian atmosphere down to the surface.

Andrew Wiles was a ten-year-old math enthusiast who was captivated by the mystery of Fermat's last theorem. After two decades, he returned to the theorem as a math professor and spent seven years working on it in secrecy. He eventually managed to prove the theorem, but it took another year and collaboration with another mathematician to fix the proof.

Donald Rumsfeld's famous statement about "known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns" is accurate. He left out one category, however: unknown knowns. This is the realm of self-delusion, where people think they know what they know, but they don't. People continue on, pretending to know what they think they know, unaware of facts that contradict their beliefs. Ozan Varol noted that people prefer to make bold statements with conviction, even when they have only a few minutes of Wikipedia knowledge on the subject. People have mastered the art of pretending to have an opinion, but this approach prevents them from learning from outside sources.

Actions to take

Flying in the Face of Uncertainty

“Genius hesitates.” - Carlo Rovelli

Pierre de Fermat scribbled a note on a textbook margin that baffled mathematicians for more than three centuries. He proposed that there wasn’t any solution to that mathematical equation, and he had a demonstration for the proposition, but the margin was too narrow to contain it.

That note would haunt generations of mathematicians, as Femat died before proving what came to be known as Fermat’s last theorem.

Andrew Wiles, a math professor and a Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford, dedicated seven years of his life trying to prove Fermat’s theorem until he cracked it. Initially, the world was shocked when he revealed that he had the proof. However, the proof had a mistake. And it would take another year and help from another mathematician to repair it.

Reflecting on how he proved the theorem, Wiles compared the discovery process to navigating a dark mansion. You begin in the first room and spend months poking and bumping into things. After a lot of confusion and disorientation, you’ll eventually find the light switch. Then you move into another room and start all over again.

In terms of anomalies, it’s important to pay attention to them as they can be the key to breakthroughs. Clyde Tombaugh, who had a passion for building telescopes, started making drawings of what he saw in the sky.

He sent his drawings to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and due to their impressiveness, he got a job there. Looking at the sky one night, he observed an anomaly—a faint dot shifting back and forth. It turned out to be a planet located beyond Neptune, located far away from the sun. The planet would later be named Pluto. Unfortunately, Pluto would later lose its status as a planet, according to new standards for planets established by scientists.

Actions to take

Reasoning From First Principles

“Originality consists of returning to the origin.” - Antoni Gaudi

Research shows that we tend to become increasingly rule-bound as we grow older. Furthermore, a study where participants were quizzed about a documentary they had watched showed that they changed their responses 70% of the time after seeing others’ responses, even if they were false.

We tend to choose conformity and adhere to unspoken rules. We walk the same path as others and try the same old ways of doing things. Reasoning from first principles means questioning everything until you reach the fundamentals, and once you’ve got there, you reason your way back up.

One popular example of someone who applies the first principle thinking is Elon Musk, who brought SpaceX’s innovations. When he started the company, he realized that rockets were too expensive, so he went to Russia to find cheaper alternatives. But since they were still very expensive, he used first principle thinking to come up with another way. He realized that by building the rockets himself along with his employees, the price would be significantly lower. He achieved that, and he went even further, making the rockets reusable.

He wasn’t afraid to take a risk and make mistakes. Because he tried something new, he had a breakthrough that no one else had. Along similar lines, comedian Steve Martin changed how people could approach stand-up comedy. Normally all comedians create jokes with a punchline, but Martin had chosen to create jokes without one. People around him harshly critiqued him, but his jokes worked, and his audiences couldn’t really tell exactly why they were laughing. They could only describe him as hilarious. Eventually, he became a stand-up legend.

Actions to take

Mint at Play

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

As we grow older, curiosity tends to be discouraged. Proverbs such as “Curiosity killed the cat” can show the cultural embeddedness of the discouragement of curiosity. We specialize in a certain field, and the more we practice it, the more we are reluctant to learn about anything else. Nevertheless, curiosity is the fundamental principle behind thinkers' greatest historical insights.

This was proven in a study of 36 first-year medical students who were split into two groups. One group had to attend art classes, where they would observe, describe, and interpret works of art. The other group was a control group that didn’t attend the classes. The medical students who attended the art classes improved their observational skills and outperformed the control group in tasks such as interpreting photographs of retinal disease.

Having a beginner's mind and being open to new information helped Albert Einstein formulate his theory of relativity. He was inspired by the works of David Hume, which questioned the absolute nature of space-time.

Similarly, Charles Darwin was also inspired by geology and economics to formulate his theory of evolution. In Principles of Geology, Charles Lyel argued that mountains, rivers, and canyons had been formed through a slow evolutionary process that took place over eons as erosion, wind, and rain chipped away at the Earth.

Aside from curiosity, working together and being bored sometimes can also fuel innovation and breakthroughs. A study divided the participants into three teams that had to solve a complex problem: one team where everyone worked alone, one team where they all worked together, and one team where they intermittently worked together. The last team had the best performance. Working alone but also benefiting from the insights of other people can help you solve complex problems more efficiently.

In terms of boredom, it has been proven by research that incubation periods when we are bored and stuck help us to solve a problem efficiently. Being bored is also associated with a diffuse mode of thinking, which, according to research, plays a crucial role in creativity.

Actions to take

Moonshot Thinking

“We’re a species of moonshots—though we’ve largely forgotten it..”

The president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, asked his nation “to do what most people thought was impossible” when he chose the moon as the new frontier for human exploration. It was a giant leap of faith that such a thing would be possible—but we achieved that goal.

Oftentimes, we think we are incapable of things we would be able to achieve with the proper determination. We tend to believe that we are not enough, but people like Michelle Obama dispel this kind of thinking. With her experiences working with non-profits, foundations, and corporations, she realized that many successful people were not as smart as you may think; rather, they just knew how to create solutions for complex problems.

To create solutions for complex problems, we have to believe we can do it, as well as not be judgmental of our ideas. Surprisingly, shocking the brain also helps with the generation of novel ideas. Neuroplasticity research showed that neurons, like muscles, can rewire and grow through discomfort.

Actions to take

What if We Sent Two Rovers Instead of One

“A problem well defined is a problem half solved.” - Unknown

Mark Adler is an atypical engineer. He is charming and charismatic, with a pair of sunglasses often hanging from his neck. In his spare time, he flies small airplanes and goes scuba diving. He was working as an engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1999 when the Mars Polar Lander crashed.

That machine was part of the Mars Exploration Mission that Ozan Valor was also working on. The lander should have helped the Mars rover reach the Martian surface by deploying three shock-absorbing legs and firing up its rockets while using radar to navigate down to the surface. However, it failed, and NASA assumed that the Lander had probably plummeted to the surface after a premature shutdown of its rocket motors.

While all the team members responsible for sending other rovers to Mars were trying to figure out how to fix the issue with the previous landing mechanisms, Adler proposed an alternative. He believed they could use balloons that would inflate quickly before the impact with the Martian surface. They tried his idea and sent two rovers instead of one to ensure that at least one rover would survive. The mission was a success, and it was all because of Adler’s out-of-the-box thinking.

We tend to fixate on asking the same questions and coming up with the same solutions to certain problems. This tendency is called by psychologists “functional fixedness.” Adler overcame the functional fixedness that influenced NASA’s engineers by asking a question that approached the problem from a completely different angle.

Richard Douglas Fosbury went even further than Adler when approaching a sports problem and did the reverse of what everyone else was doing. He was a high jumper, and the straddle method was the conventional method of clearing a bar. This method implied that athletes would jump face-down over the bar. This method never worked well for Fosbury, so he tried something else: he jumped backward to clear the bar.

Initially, he was ridiculed, but when he took home the gold medal at the 1968 Summer Olympics, his method became standard practice, which was then called the “Fosbury flop.”

Actions to take

The Power of Flip-Flopping

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.“ — Sherlock Holmes

We tend to get attached to our judgments and opinions, and we become highly resistant to change, impeding us from finding the truth.

According to research, two-thirds of Americans are unwilling to hear other people’s opinions on same-sex marriages, even though they would receive cash for it. A study showed that parents who were hesitant to vaccinate their children became even more determined not to do it when they were provided with evidence regarding the consequences of not vaccinating their kids.

In another study, university students were asked whether they thought heavier objects fell faster than lighter ones. After their answers had been recorded, the students then observed a physical demonstration in which a metal and a plastic object of the same size were dropped from the same height in a vacuum.

Despite the fact that the two objects fell at the same rate, the students who initially believed the heavier metal would fall faster were more likely to report that the metal did fall faster. This just shows how stubbornly we can cling to our opinions.

Scientists can also be biased and victims of their own hopes and opinions. That’s why Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his groundbreaking work on the psychology of judgment, and decision-making, is trying to disprove his theories. The only way we can counter our tendency to attach to our ideas is to try to disprove them and create alternative explanations that might lead us to the truth.

Actions to take

Test as You Fly, Fly as You Test

"We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training" — Unknown

A survey of 32 cutting-edge retail companies conducted by professors at Wharton at Harvard revealed that 78% of firms test their products before launching them. However, the companies believed that the products would be profitable despite the unfavorable results. The retailers made the results fit their expectations by blaming the negative test results on the weather, poor choice of test sites, and other external factors.

Even if we try to test our assumptions, we must ensure that our biases do not contaminate the test results. IDEO’s research into the best design for kid toothbrushes is a good example of a thoughtful approach to testing. Oral-B hired IDEO after they tried creating the design themselves and failed.

Oral-B took an adult-sized toothbrush and made it skinnier because they assumed that children have smaller hands and need smaller toothbrushes. The children couldn’t properly use the toothbrush created by Oral-B because they needed bigger toothbrushes than adults.

IDEO researchers went to various families' homes and, with the parents' agreement, watched the kids brushing their teeth. They observed that kids grabbed the toothbrushes with their entire fists rather than their fingers because of a lack of dexterity. The researchers concluded that the kids required big and fat toothbrushes. Oral-B took their recommendation and created a kids’ toothbrush that became a best seller. Proper testing requires realistic circumstances and unbiased research methods.

Actions to take

Nothing Succeeds Like a Failure

"Man errs as long he strives" — Goethe

Creating an environment in which people can make mistakes, learn from them, and share their experiences encourages innovation and learning. Making mistakes is the road toward the creation of great things.

Shakespeare, for example, is known for a small number of his classics, but in the span of two decades, he penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets, some of which have been “consistently slammed for unpolished prose and incomplete plot and character development.” Another example is Pablo Picasso’s work. He produced 1,800 paintings, 1200 sculptures, 2800 ceramics, and 12,000 drawings, only a fraction of which are noteworthy.

Making mistakes is necessary to polish your skill in any given domain. However, you must learn from your failures to make progress. The founder of Forbes magazine, Malcolm Forbes, put it best when he said: “‘Failure is success if we learn from it.”

Actions to take

Nothing Fails Like Success

"Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." — Bill Gates

On an early Saturday morning on February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was on its way to Earth after spending 16 days in space. Unfortunately, the space shuttle exploded during reentry into the atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board and spreading debris over two thousand square miles. NASA determined that the culprit was a piece of foam insulation that was “about the size of a beer cooler.”

A few days after the tragedy, the space shuttle program manager downplayed the significance of the foam debris. He explained that foam debris had struck and damaged the shuttle in every mission, and it became an “accepted flight risk.”

James Hallock, an aviation safety expert who is part of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, explained that the “foam shedding” became an “in-family” event, meaning that it had already been analyzed and understood. Nevertheless, NASA had no real explanation as to why its shuttles were shedding foam or how it could be prevented.

In other words, they failed to acknowledge the limitations of their understanding of the foaming issue and let success reinforce false assumptions regarding the safety of their space shuttles.

Actions to take

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