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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: Unexpected Consequences

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Monday, October 13, 2008

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The Irish potato famine was one of the great disasters of the 19th century. The peasant population of the island had come to depend on the modest potato as a staple part of their diet. When disease attacked the crop and it failed, thousands died and thousands more left the emerald isle to find a better future elsewhere. Some of my ancestors were among them. If you live in North America, it is likely that some of your ancestors were among those refugees, too.

This is the year of the potato. The United Nations has recognized rice as one of the most important foods in the world with its international year of rice in 2004. This year the UN recognized the second most important staple crop in the world by designating 2008 the year of the potato. One third of the calories consumed all over the world comes from potatoes. I should try to reduce my share of that!

Potatoes were unknown in the 15th century outside what is now Peru. Spanish explorers found the natives eating different varieties of the tuber and sent them back to Europe. For years people in the west were afraid to eat these plants, related as they were to the deadly nightshade.

But for the last three hundred years the world has come to count the potato as one of the most important food crops. And it was discovered by accident, as it were, by people who were looking for something else: gold, glory, or converts to their god.

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the risks and rewards of exploration. How did Ferdinand and Isabella weigh the risks and potential rewards when they gave three small ships to the irritating Italian guy who was probably going to kill himself and his crews. If the leaders of Europe had drawn up a Risk Management evaluation of Columbus voyage in 1492 the way we draw up Risk Management evaluations of space flight, would they have known to include the potato? And with the perspective of five hundred years would we call the voyage a strategic success on the basis of that discovery -- which has turned out to be more valuable than all the gold and silver extracted from the American continents? How do you rate that?

Eratosthenes of Cyrene computed the size of the earth about 200 BC based on the length of shadow cast by two rods at two different places in Egypt at the same time. He was right to within 3%. Geometry is an exact science. Contrary to popular belief, everybody in Columbus day (well, all the educated people anyway) knew the world was round not flat. And they pretty much knew how big it is. And they also knew -- no great feat of deduction -- that you could sail to the west to get to the east, or in other words head west and get to the spice islands, China, India, and Japan. Everybody knew that. And they knew one more thing. That given the sailing speed of the ships of the day, you could not carry enough food and water to get there before you died of starvation. And everybody was right. Enter Columbus who had mistakenly calculated a much smaller earth. His calculations -- entirely erroneous -- showed that a crew could just make it to the spice islands before they starved to death. And all of educated Europe laughed. No wonder Columbus was turned down by kings and courts all around Europe. No wonder that the most backward and ill-educated kingdom in Europe was the only one to fall for his arguments.

Nowadays, we use modern risk management. We take possible outcome and plot them on a scale from unlikely to likely and their consequences from minor to catastrophic. We use our best engineering and scientific data to categorize the risk. If we had lived in Columbus day, we would have categorized the outcome (dies of starvation before reaching land) as "Probable/Catastrophic". No body signs up for Probable Catastrophic risks.

Just one problem. Almost exactly where Columbus calculated he would reach land . . . he did reach land. Just not the land he though. Serendipity. Discovering something that you did not expect to find when you set out out.

How do you rate serendipity on the risk management scale? Some place near potatoes, I expect.

I am mindful of great quotations of scientists and leaders from bygone days. Charles Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Albert Michelson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907: "The most important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented by new discoveries is exceedingly remote." Hmm, a Swiss patent office clerk would challenge that notion very shortly.

Modern risk management techniques, like commercial calculations on return on investment, will invariable tell you to stay home and not waste your time exploring, discovering. After all there is nothing out there; at least nothing we can imagine.

Oh yeah, there is one other quotation from the same era, from Thomas Alva Edison -- somebody who was always pushing to find out what he didn't know -- "We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything."

Or how important potatoes would be in propelling my ancestors to seek a better life in the new world.

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