When I was a kid, there were like 13 TV channels (instead of today’s 1,300), but most of it was crap and/or not interesting to me. But one thing that was never to be missed… Saturday morning cartoons.
One day, I will write about the revolutionary avant-garde music that accompanied many of those cartoons. Pull up any Tom & Jerry cartoon on YouTube, close your eyes and just listen to it. There should be graduate-level courses taught about it. Even without the cartoon, the sounds tell a story of their own, with an incredible, vast range of musical styles — and noise — all crammed into a few minutes.
Anyway, that’s not what this is about… this is actually about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
Wile Ethelbert Coyote (yes, really… don’t say you never learn anything reading these…) is an interesting character; both genius and stupid, rolled into one.
Here’s his schtick… he comes up with an idea to catch the roadrunner… some ideas are simple, some are super-complicated. Recall the complicated blueprints… and vast array of parts he orders from ACME. He puts together some very sophisticated contraptions, which of course inevitably fail… but here’s the thing… he never follows up on his initial idea. He gives up and moves on to the next one.
Like, think about it… a rocket-powered helmet for forward thrust, and roller skates… and it almost worked… he almost had the roadrunner… until the bird took a sharp turn, right in front of an enormous wall of rock… which the coyote hit with about 500 g of force.
But he’s a cartoon, and he brushes it off, and moves on to the next idea. Hey coyote… come on, man… it almost worked! Don’t give up on it. You know, like next time, fire up the rockets and roller skates somewhere else, when the roadrunner is on a 20-mile straightaway.
Or that catapult that looked so good on paper, but fired you straight into the ground… you know, modify it… put a limiter on it. Put something on it that ejects you at the optimum part of the swing. Fiddle with it. Do something. Don’t abandon it. Don’t just let the roadrunner stand there and laugh at you. Meep meep!
This bothered me more than anything… and if I, a seven-year-old-kid, could come up with the rudimentary mechanics of the scientific process just by watching a silly coyote keep “killing” himself, you’d certainly, these days, expect better from an army of “intelligent” adults who have the entire knowledge base of human achievement at their fingertips.
This is the way science works. This is how it progresses. And experimentation is a key part of it, because you’re rarely right the first time.
As a computer programmer, I can count the number of times something worked straight out of the gate. Exactly twice.
I remember the first time it happened; I had a program I wanted to write… I had it all figured out in my head. I sat down at the computer and banged it all out; it took about 3 hours. And then, I hit the [Build] button for the first time. But instead of the inevitable long list of warnings and show-stopping errors, it was zero warnings and zero errors; all I got was a program ready to run. And I ran it, and it worked perfectly. Any other programmers… please feel free to chime in with your opinions as to how often that happens…
We are, today, living in a huge science experiment, and since we’re immersed in it, it’s important to understand the process. There are mistakes all the time, and we learn from them and we course-correct them. The insanity of the sorts of arguments that say things like, “Dr. X, several months ago, said masks were not necessary. Now the doctor is saying they are. The doctor was clearly wrong back then, so how can we trust anything the doctor says?”
Brix, Fauci, Tam… even Henry. Pick your doctor; that statement applies. All of them have made statements which, at the time, agreed with the science. Then, through experimentation and observation, the science changed. And so did their opinions and corresponding directives. That’s how the process works.
Elon Musk has treated us all with first-row tickets to this process. If you’ve been following SpaceX from the start, you’ll have seen countless attempts at recovering a booster rocket by landing it vertically on a ship. Some blew up. Some missed the ship and fell into the ocean. Some landed and tipped over. But these days, they routinely simply fall from the sky, perfectly vertical, and perfectly hit a bullseye on some ship in the middle of nowhere, and, in gymnastic terms, stick the landing. It’s astonishing. As per a previous article, closely indistinguishable from magic.
But it’s not magic; it’s countless iterations of making mistakes, adjusting, trying it again, over and over and over, till you get it right. A couple of times in my life, I’ve hit that [Build] button and it’s just worked. Several thousand other times, I’ve had to hit that [Build] button several hundred times for a single, simple little program. That’s how the world typically works.
And that’s the world we’re presently in; where scientists are making decisions with the best information they have – at this moment. Certainly in hindsight, it might change. But for the moment, who exactly are you going to trust? A scientist with decades of experience? A former reality-show star? An Instagram influencer who has like, omg, so many followers?
It was always amusing to see the coyote go off a cliff… and hang in the sky until he made the mistake of looking down, realizing where he was… and then have gravity kick in… like, if perhaps he hadn’t noticed, things would’ve been ok. Unfortunately, that’s not how the real world works. The bad things — in that case, gravity — will tug at you as soon as you give them a chance.
I think, collectively, it’s best not to have approached the edge of that cliff in the first place. But if you find yourself there, as is the case for many people these days, be careful who you listen to.
Just like what the roadrunner was so good at doing to the coyote… some of them will send you flying off that cliff. Meep meep!