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Friday, March 18, 2011

An Interesting Discovery

I was skiing with a friend at Winter Park Colorado this week.  We had the opportunity to talk about our professions during lunches and while riding the lift.  He is involved in discovery research while I am, of course, a professional pilot.  Our occupations have two very different objectives, his trying to establish, validate and apply new knowledge and mine trying to execute well-established procedures with very little variation in the outcome.

Ironically, our activities have the same goal.  To meet our respective goals we require no difference between an intended sequence of events and an actual sequence of events.  Both of us use standardized processes to perform the steps necessary to progress toward our destinations, a safe landing or a new and useful composition of matter.  These practices or procedures are essential in obtaining the results we want.  They have been developed with great consideration and refinement.  Even inadvertent deviation from the accepted practices and procedures will likely compromise the end result.  Whether adventitious chemical reactants on the one hand or unintended pilot actions on the other, adherence to standardized practices is imperative for both of us.

Another similarity between discovery research and aviation is that adherence to standard procedure will not ensure achievement of the desired result.  Performing experiments within the bounds of accepted practices will no more guarantee a new discovery than following SOP will guarantee a safe flight.  Rote execution of accepted methods is absolutely necessary but may often be insufficient to achieve the desired outcome.

Finally, we both use sophisticated technology to do the tasks we used to painstakingly carry out by hand.  Mass spectrometers can identify compounds much more quickly and accurately than old-fashioned combustion analysis.   Flight management computers can fly the airplane more accurately and efficiently than a pilot ever could.  Machines now perform tasks intimately involved in the outcome that we previously performed by hand.  This has had the effect of removing the human from many of the subtle elements of the process that are fundamental to a successful result.  Data is analyzed; auto flight systems are programmed with the expectation that the outcome will be the desired one.  When it is not, the confusion can range from wonder to mayhem.

What then is the guarantor of a successful outcome, manifested as a new discovery or an incident free flight?  Human thought is the nexus of both our goals.  Whether the goal is to make a new discovery or create a safe operation.  Policies, procedures and best practices all contribute to create the environment we use to pursue our individual goals, but they are not a substitute for human thought.  For a successful outcome, the desired goal must start as a concept or vision, whether entirely new or routinely accomplished, whether a physical entity or a safe operation.  Our individual goals must always be consciously pursued by applying human thought to each and every step of the process.  Interestingly, how the procedure is applied is often far more consequential than the procedure itself.  When human thought is replaced with unconscious procedural compliance or instinctive manipulation of the technology, results can be catastrophic.  Disengaging the mind from either the process or the goal can be as disastrous in the lab as it is in an airplane.

I discovered that our professions are absolutely identical in one way.  Neither our tools no matter how accurate or technologically advanced nor our procedures in whatever way soundly developed, accurately trained or routinely complied with will ever be a replacement for human thought.

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