Deciphering Clarke’s first law

Arthur C. Clarke once said, ‘When a distinguished, but elderly scientist says something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.’

Notice the asymmetry. Decades of immersion in a field gives distinguished scientists a clear understanding of its current possibilities. Besides, distinguished scientists have a reputation to protect – nobody wants to be that prominent scientist who got a fundamental assertion dead wrong.

However, given their in-depth exposure to their field, experts are unable to bring a fresh perspective to it. Today, our understanding of science evolves at a rate faster than the human brain can rewire itself. Deep expertise works like a magnifying lens. It gives its wearer an enlarged perspective of what is possible today, but blurs out whatever is possible a few years from now.

Isaac Newton claimed it was impossible for light to be a wave. Lord Kelvin claimed it was impossible for the earth to be older than a 100 million years. Albert Einstein stated it was impossible for information to travel faster than the speed of light. Clarke’s law held up for these pronouncements.

As a new entrant to a field, trust experts in their assertion of what is possible. Remain skeptical, however, of what they claim to be impossible.

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