In my last post about “Requirements gone wild” (April 11), I mentioned the mythical material “unobtainium”, a notion that sometimes doesn’t sit well with people. This time, I’m going to do a reality check.
People sometimes seem to think that rocket science represents the pinnacle of human creativity. Watching a rocket launch is awe-inspiring. It is taken as evidence that anything the mind can imagine, human creativity can make real. I’m convinced that people who say that are really trying to say is that the human spirit, along with persistence, can accomplish anything; within a lot of human activity, that may be true. But I’ve seen this used as a defense that some day we will have warp drive… just because we can imagine it today. In the broader spectrum of how nature really behaves, this doesn’t hold up.
Fundamentally, science and engineering are about discovering and harnessing the laws of nature. We believe that the world is governed by a self-consistent set of laws of behavior. We try to discover those laws, and sometimes we draw the wrong conclusions. Nevertheless, we believe that nature itself is self-consistent in its behavior. We can improve our understanding, but we cannot demand that nature contradict itself. (Well, we can demand, but it won’t do any good.)
How well we understand those laws of nature is evident in the types of engineering we now engage in. Sending a rocket to the Moon or detonating a nuclear device are both extremely dependent on our understanding those laws. Sometimes in engineering development, we don’t really know the answer. So we have to do experiments to ask nature how it behaves under certain circumstances. If we like the answer, we incorporate it into our design. If we don’t, we go back to the drawing board.
“Unobtainium” is a code word for material that borders on violating the laws of physics. In truth, we may not know how to create the material today. It may cost us a couple of decades of major sweat to figure it out. (I’m still waiting on nanotubes for digital circuitry with zero internal resistance.) If it is possible at all, turning unobtainium into the obtainable takes non-trivial resources. Sometimes, those resources are very expensive.If you are bringing VCs, angels, or other investors to the table, then what may be unique about your plan is how you convince yourself and investors that unobtainium really isn’t. The business plan in part amounts to how you can prove it. On the other hand, if investors smell unaddressed unobtainium (also known as “hand-waving”) in your plan, you can expect them to walk away.
I know. I’m such a spoil-sport.
As for warp drive, the notion is in fact being investigated, but as a possible extension of the current laws of physics, using devices whose behavior we understand in current physics. (Look up “Alcubierre drive” and Harold “Sonny” White.) This approach amounts to looking for more subtle behavior in what we would otherwise consider as “noise”. Can we then tweak the signal out of that noise and harness it in a new way? Time will tell. That time may be decades. It may be centuries. It may be never because nature doesn’t behave that way. But it will be interesting to see what clues can be discovered on Earth in the next few years.