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Nuclear bomb inevitability Tue, Mar 07, 2017
From reading Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, it struck me that the invention of the atomic bomb was essentially inevitable.  Particle physics was a hot topic at the time, and scientists were discovering various things about chemical elements and what happened when you applied different forces and stresses to them.  It was eventually found that certain radioactive elements emit a bunch of energy when a small amount of energy is applied to them.  All it took was for somebody to think, "Huh, I wonder what would happen if we started a chain reaction?"  The geopolitics of the time assured that certain world powers were always in the market for more powerful weapons, and the general fear of the era necessitated "the good guys" figuring it out before "the bad guys" did.  The ferocity of the battles in the Pacific against the Japanese showed that surrender was out of the question, so a ridiculously strong message needed to be sent to assure victory.  It's easy to question it in hindsight, but it's nearly certain that human beings would've invented the nuclear bomb eventually. #science

Engineers are tools Tue, Mar 07, 2017
I'm an engineer, and people sometimes like to point out how engineers created things like the atomic bomb and hydraulic fracking.  You know, the bad things.  I don't need to point out that engineers have created good things too, like jet engines and artificial body parts. 

What I do want to acknowledge is that engineers are simply tools.  They solve problems by creating or fixing or enabling or removing something.  They're like a hammer or a screw driver.  Is a tool inherently capable of amazing or terrible things?  No.  It simply does the job it was asked to do.  That doesn't mean engineers are completely free from blame or responsibility.  But it at least adds some perspective. 

In a similar vein, tools are capable of nearly anything.  Or more accurately, there is a tool for every job.  I have a tendency towards pessimism, so I usually have to tell people their ideas are impossible to achieve in the allotted time and for the budgeted price.  One of my colleagues likes to put it another way:  "With enough money and time, literally anything is possible." #science

Luck in competition Tue, Mar 07, 2017
The concept of luck comes up in competition sometimes, like "That was a lucky shot," or "He got knocked out by a lucky punch."  I think the general consensus is that there's no such thing as a lucky shot or a lucky punch.  You could say luck had almost nothing to do with it.  Plus, calling it lucky detracts from the hours and hours of practice and perfection and skill that went into that one event.  It's not just insulting to call it lucky.  It's ignorant. 

But I think there's a deeper level of luck involved in some cases.  Not luck in the sense that a random action was taken at a random time and happened to produce a positive result.  But rather that a series of well-executed actions took place in the exact right order and produced a positive result.  The shot itself wasn't lucky, but it was predicated on the precise timing and exact positioning of the previous event, which itself benefitted from similarly perfect preceding events.  The final result is like a series of probabilities multiplied together:  70% chance of the first event succeeding, 50% chance of the second event succeeding, 20% chance of the third event succeeding = 0.7*0.5*0.2 = 0.07 or 7% overall chance of all events succeeding.  A probability like 7% looks like luck, and it sort of is.  But it's much more than that. #sports