Like many earlier this week, I was picking my jaw off the floor when I learned of the success of the Rosetta mission in safely getting the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. There are not enough expletives to precede the word “amazing” in describing that feat of math and engineering (not to mention good fortune). And I hasten to remind folks that the very computing technology from a decade back, that was sufficient to take the craft to what is akin to a specific sand grain on Cape Cod, is likely something that would make your kids’ eyes roll if you offered it to them in a desktop machine for their gaming this coming holiday season.
What tends to get lost in the shuffle is that the craft was launched over ten years ago, and was likely in the planning stages for a number of years prior. So, um, was everybody who was in on the planning and design still working on the project this past Wednesday? I imagine some were, but I also imagine that many of those on the ground floor had retired, or died, or moved on to other jobs or even lines of work, and many who were drinking champagne on Wednesday hadn’t even graduated high school when it was first launched.
Fundamentally, what permitted this magnificant achievement to happen was the manner in which a single “hive mind” was created and sustained. I will add to this the fact that the Philae lander is presently sitting in a shadow, and getting no charge to its battery from the solar cells on board. Just when those solar cells will once again be able to do their job and power Philae up to go back to work and relay daya is anybody’s guess. So the KM challenge is not yet done with. There may yet be tasks for Rosetta and Philae to be delegated and analyzed by people who weren’t even born when it was launched. (Note to self: Check StewartBrand’s “Long Bets” site – http://longbets.org/ – to see if anyone has wagered on when we will first make physical contact with a comet.)
This is all to say that big achievements, of any type, whether they happen at the edge of the Milky Way, or down the hall from you, depend fundamentally on knowledge-creation, knowledge-gathering, knowledge-transfer, and knowledge sharing. Make sure that when you arrive, people are encouraged to tell you what they know and what there is to know. While you’re there, spread the knowledge around. And when you leave, make sure you do the same. Big things will come of it.