You may have wondered at the title of this blog: “The Tinfoil Hat.” Doesn’t that carry strong implications of quackery? Culturally, the tinfoil hat invokes ideas from which most people who consider themselves to be “real” scientists and intellectuals try their utmost to distance themselves.
While it’s true that there are many concepts that are absurd and infeasible, it is also possible to err in the opposite direction towards the safe and proven. This contrast is especially true for ideas about space exploration, but is certainly present in any scientific discipline.
A discussion of these contrasts in continuum of usefulness and feasibility with my advisor, Mason Peck, gave rise to a concept that I like to call “the tinfoil hat line.” It is a very fuzzy conceptual line that separates safe, clearly feasible or proven ideas on one side, and absurd schemes and conjectures on the other.
The tinfoil hat line does not render judgment on the worthiness of an idea for further action. The world needs people to propose and work on ideas on both sides of the line. Long chains of mundane projects have led to the incremental improvements that have led to many miracles of modern life, but without the insane ideas, those chains of improvements may never have begun.
As I see it, the problems related to the tinfoil hat line are twofold:
- Misperception of the side of the line onto which a concept falls.
- Poor thinking regarding the side of the line where a concept should live in the first place.
An example of the first issue are the myriad of space ventures trumpeted by the media as having imminent relevance, but closer inspection reveals that their business plans are along the lines of:
- Awesome Space Idea and Cool Powerpoint
- . . .
- Profit / Humanity Expands Throughout The Solar System
The second issue is exemplified, in my mind, by the extreme aversion to risk that congress forces upon NASA.
There is much more to say about the tinfoil hat line and its relevance to space exploration and science, but I first wanted to introduce the concept and give you something to chew on, and explain the seemingly paradoxical name of this blog.