When Is Rocket Science Rocket Science?

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The Inquirer has an article which claims that rocket science isn’t so tough, after all.

While I don’t think the author was being too serious about the matter, it does illustrates a very common misunderstanding about knowledge.

Sure, what was said describes rocket science well enough for the average person.

Now take that blueprint and build a Space Shuttle. 🙂

You can’t? Why not?

Just about everything in life can be explained simply to those who simply want a general notion of what is going on. It’s an entirely different story when you actually want to do something with the information.

If you have a five-year-old son and daughter, and he or she asks you, “Daddy (or Mommy), how does the computer work” you don’t hand him or her a stack of textbooks on CPU architecture. You just say something like “the CPU is the brain of the computer” and that is a good enough answer.

But after you tell your kid that, you don’t call up AMD and insist the kid is now qualified for some Hammer design work.

There’s a level of knowledge for knowing, and there’s a different level of knowledge for doing.

The Perfect Being the Enemy of the Good

Knowledge is not a binary choice. It’s not a choice between no knowledge and knowing every last possible detail.

We run into that sometimes. We’ll often write an article simplifying a complex situation. In the eyes of an expert, often grossly oversimplifying a situation.

Now if we were telling people how to design and build a CPU or a heatsink, we would absolutely agree that our explanation was completely inadequate for such a task.

But the people for whom the article was meant aren’t going to go out and do that. They just want to make sure their CPU doesn’t melt, or something else that does not require absolute accuracy.

We put up a table with Athlon wattages the other day. Most of those numbers were extrapolated from formulas.

Some wrote and said we had to test each and every value before we could say what we said.

I suppose if we spent a couple thousand dollars, we could come up with the test equipment to do just that. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if most of those values are a bit off.

But here’s where the brains should kick in.

What is it being used for? It’s being used to get a rough idea of CPU temperature.

If the estimate are a couple watts off, what happens? The calculation may be a 1/2C or 1C off. Does that level of error matter for figuring out if your CPU is going to melt or not? No.

Most importantly, what would be better for the person reading the article, being maybe 1C off, or having no idea at all?

It is the middle of the night. The drugstores are all closed. There is no thermometer in the house. Your child cries out that he feels very ill and feverish.

Do you tell the child, “Sorry, kid, I can’t get your exact temperature, and I won’t rely on inaccurate means like feeling your forehead. I can do nothing until I can buy a thermometer.”

That’s what those who insist on absolute accuracy or nothing are essentially saying.

Now if you’re part of the design team at AMD, you most probably would not be satisfied with that level of accuracy. We did not write it for the design team at AMD. We wrote it for people who didn’t know this was even a matter to be concerned about.

That is the difference between information and intelligence; between knowing, and knowing what’s important, what isn’t, and when.

If you plan on going out, and want to know what to wear, do you ask for exact temperature readings from someone coming in? No. Let’s assume you got one, and when you went out, you found out his temperature report was 4C off. Would it really matter? No.

On the other hand, if that person took the temperature of your child, and was off 4C, that would be a big deal, possibly even tragic.

Two Situations

Beware of the “expert” who will not (or maybe cannot) give you an simple explanation for simple comprehension. He probably isn’t the expert he claims to be.

On the other hand, if you plan on doing exactly what it took him ten years to learn, and you want the sixty-second version, you’re a damn fool for asking, and he’d be a bigger fool for answering.

Know the difference, and know there is a difference.

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