Copyright 2016 Robert Clark
(Note: the opinions expressed here are the authors own and should not be interpreted to be those of Widener University.)
For space advocates the losses of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia will always rile as accidents that didn't have to be. The decisions that led up to the accidents were made by competent engineers and managers, however in hindsight we realize they were not the correct decisions. A common saying is "hindsight is 20-20" but could it be that the correct decisions could have been made in foresight?
When someone criticizes your poor decision making after an accident, you could always assert in your defense "hindsight is 20-20". But in many cases we realize the results of bad decisions should have been foreseen. If a man lights a match to a gasoline can, and then after being criticized for that bad decision, he couldn't respond, "Well sure, hindsight is 20-20." In that case it is common knowledge that that would be a foolish thing to do.
In other cases those with appropriate expertise would have sufficient insight to realize certain actions would have bad results. You also would not say "hindsight is 20-20" then. So the key question is are there people with the right insight to make those right decisions even when those who are experienced in the field would make the wrong ones?
An example of the type of insight that is required: in the space shuttle Challenger accident it was known that cold temperatures could affect the O rings ability to prevent the breach of hot gases to the outside of the solid rocket boosters. So some of the engineers brought this to the attention of the shuttle managers prior to the launch. But those arguing the other side noted that there had been also cases at warm temperatures that there had been some degree of blow by past the O rings of the hot gases though not enough for complete burn though.
Unfortunately, the fact that could have decided the issue against launching was not recognized until after the fateful launch. In the post-launch accident review, some shuttle engineers that opposed the launch produced a graph showing that almost all launches at cold temperatures produced blow by and most of the bad cases of blow by were at the colder temperatures. The launches at warm temperatures had relatively few cases of blow by. The Challenger launch was going to be at the coldest temperature ever attempted for the shuttle.
When presented with that graph after the accident, one shuttle program manager said, "When you look at it that way, it sort of jumps out at you." Unfortunately, that insight to produce that graph only occurred in hindsight, not foresight.
Another example is provided by the Columbia accident. Shuttle mission managers decided against requesting imaging from more accurate(classified) sources or having the shuttle astronauts do a space walk to examine the wing for damage, because they concluded "nothing could be done anyway". However, could something be done if they HAD to come up with an answer by thinking outside-the-box?
After the accident, NASA was tasked with coming up with ways the crew could have been saved. The leading proposal was to do a rescue with the space shuttle Atlantis. Part of the reason shuttle managers hadn't thought this feasible before the accident was because Columbia was scheduled to return Feb. 1st, 2003 but Atlantis would not be ready for launch until March 1st.
Nevertheless, NASA concluded after the accident that the consumables on Columbia could be extended an extra two weeks, and the Atlantis preparation could be speeded up two weeks so that a rescue mission was possible, .
One worry about this proposed solution was that speeding up the Atlantis preparation process could lead to errors and would endanger the Atlantis as well. But it is quite likely, with further thinking outside-the-box, it would not have been even necessary to speed up the preparation time for Atlantis.
In the 2015 film The Martian two instances occurred where unmanned cargo ships were launched to send up supplies to extend the survival time of the crew in the film. This then could have been used to extend the survival time of the crew of the Columbia. The limiting factor for the survival time for Columbia were simply the CO2 scrubbers that removed the carbon dioxide from the air. These canisters were quite lightweight and in fact any of the 5 space faring nations of the world could have sent up these small canisters to rendezvous with Columbia.
During the proposed 30 day timeframe before Columbia would have run out of air scrubbers with the crew at reduced activity, there were at least 4 launches to orbit, .
The Pegasus rocket that was in this list is especially relevant since being air launched and using all solid stages should have shorter prep time. In fact the Pegasus could be launched within 7 days of notice, assuming the payload was available. The Minotaur 1 rocket also has this capability.
So what is the quality of having this foresight? Certainly it is intelligence, but it is beyond what is measured in IQ tests. I wish to argue such foresight, which is sometimes inexplicable and perhaps even sometimes cannot even be explained in words, comes from individuals with a unique ability to reason visually.
Such visual reasoning has been a hallmark of those with great insight. Einstein once said he was led to his theory of special relativity by imagining what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. And he said he was led to his general theory of relativity by the realization that someone falling in freefall would not feel his own weight.
Richard Feynman's graphical "sum over histories" approach, known as Feynman diagrams, led to a solution of a key problem in quantum electrodynamics, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize. Feynman is a good example of the point that such visual abilities are beyond what is tested in traditional IQ tests, as Feynman was measured in school to have an IQ of "only" 125, which is under the cutoff considered to be "gifted" of 130.
The Nobel-prize winning physicists Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, also scored below the "gifted" score on their IQ tests, as did Francis Crick and James Watson, Nobel-prize winning discovers of the double-helix structure of DNA.
Francis Crick is another example of the importance of visualization. It was said of him that while looking at x-ray diffraction patterns of molecules he could visualize the shape of molecules where other scientists just saw equations, .
Geneticist Barbara McClintock imagined herself down inside the maize she studied with their chromosomes. She won a Nobel for her work describing the workings of the maize chromosomes, .
Einstein's aforementioned "thought experiments " bring to mind another example of a scientist of extraordinary insight, Nikola Tesla. Tesla imagined himself down inside his constructed mechanisms. He said he was able tell where they might fail by visualizing them.
Another interesting aspect of those with these extraordinary visualization skills is that by using them they knew their ideas were correct. Without being able to explain in words why they knew they were right, they knew it before their mechanisms were built or confirming experiments conducted.
Such visual reasoning, which may be difficult to describe in words, might be regarded as "mystical" by others. A famous quote of Arthur C. Clarke is "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". We might adapt this to the reasoning of the most creative thinkers as, "any sufficiently advanced intellect is indistinguishable from the mystical".
Such visual reasoning, being able to put yourself down within the mechanism as McClintock and Tesla experienced, is a capability we want to have for those with foresight to diagnose possible problems with our launch vehicles beforehand.
How do we recognize these individuals? It is now being recognized that visual or spatial ability is a key ability for predicting success in scientific or technological fields  and there are tests focusing specifically on this ability. As a first step we could endeavor to promote those who score high on such tests.
However, Richard Feynman was a skeptic of all intelligence tests. He was proud to note how he was considered below the "gifted" scale when he was tested in school. He argued that a single number could not capture the full variety of human intelligence. I'm inclined to think the same is true even when you have a test focused on a specific kind of intelligence, such as for spatial ability.
A more inclusive search would be summarized by the idea, "clever is as clever does." Current employees and new hires should be exposed to a wide variety of different problems and issues in the company. Those who have the extensive ability to reason visually, spatially frequently can provide unique insight even outside their fields of specialization. The new hires who have an uncanny ability to diagnose issues or problems that have cropped up or, even more, predict those that will before they actually happen should be encouraged in that ability and promoted within the company.
I use the word "promote" with some leeway in its interpretation. Those with the unique ability to reason visually frequently are not the smoothest in their interpersonal relationships. It's a phenomenon now recognized by the term Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism as interpreted as difficulty in interpersonal interaction. It is not uncommon in individuals of highest intelligence. Barbara McClintock's students said of her that she was hard to understand. And Tesla's difficulties in interacting with others have become legendary.
Those with the high visual reasoning capability likely won't be the best candidates for management positions. It may even be required to hire "intermediaries" between them and management, or lower level employees.
As mentioned, individuals with this extended capacity of visual reasoning are known to be problem solvers even outside of their fields of specialization. Barbara McClintock's colleagues marveled at her ability to solve a problem they may have been working on for years after only being exposed to it for a short time.
I'm reminded of one of Isaac Asimov's later novels Foundation and Earth  where the main character Golan Trevize had the unique ability to make the right decisions based on insufficient information. While this was in the realm of a science fiction novel, I don't rule out such a capacity exists. It simply might appear to be mysterious, or mystical to us because we don't operate at the level of those with this capacity of super visualization where these objects of the mind's eye are as real and valid as objects we can see directly in front of us.
Adjunct Professor of Mathematics
Chester, PA 19013
1. ) Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
Possibility of rescue or repair. https://spaceflightnow.com/columbia/report/rescue.html
2.) 2003 in spaceflight. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2003_in_spaceflight
3.) Francis Crick. http://www.famousscientists.org/francis-crick/
4.) Barbara McClintock: Pioneering Geneticist.
By Ray Spangenburg, Diane Moser https://books.google.com/books?id=oFBQpAcjd0IC&pg=35#v=onepage&q=natural%20at%20the%20microscope&f=false
Recognizing Spatial Intelligence
Our schools, and our society, must do more to recognize spatial reasoning, a key kind of intelligence.
By Gregory Park, David Lubinski, Camilla P. Benbow on November 2, 2010 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recognizing-spatial-intel/
6.) Home again, home again, in so many ways: Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Earth.
Josh Wimmer and Alasdair Wilkins
5/13/11 6:30pm Filed to: FOUNDATION WEEK http://io9.gizmodo.com/5800423/home-again-home-again-in-so-many-ways-isaac-asimovs-foundation-and-earth
I second the motions, Bob! -- GWReplyDelete