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Book review: "Think Like a Rocket Scientist"

The book “Think Like a Rocket Scientist” by Ozan Varol (a real rocket scientist, actually), has nothing to do with Security. However, I do have the habit of sharing recommendations on such resources as well, and this piece is certainly worthy of such a recommendation.

The text promotes the deployment of thought processes that are often used in engineering and science (primarily in rocket science, where mistakes are costly), by everyone. The motivation of this book is probably a quote brought by Carl Sagan: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”; a statement with which I could not agree more.

The book covers a few principles and delves into each one of them with excellent examples and historic facts, all written in an engaging style. Some of the topics that the author discusses are:

  • the need to be able to cope well with uncertainty, as a prerequisite for growth,

  • the important roles of curiosity and thought experiments,

  • the importance of ‘moonshot thinking’ and other brainstorming tricks, such as ‘back-casting’ and ‘bad-idea brainstorm’,

  • the trick of re-framing your questions,

  • the need to avoid falling in love with your own ideas,

  • the necessity of proper testing, and

  • how to treat failure as a useful tool, but without worshiping it.

My only comment is that one has to take some of the guidelines with a grain of salt. This is not because any of them are non-helpful, but because not all domains are rocket science, where the cost of mistakes is in the hundreds of millions. Some of the messages in the book promote strong rigor, which to certain extent is always a good idea, but I can imagine people from softer industries than rocket science argue that following some of those tips (such as on testing) to the letter might result in products that cannot ship on time.

The author also has a website and a mailing list, with which I have no experience as of yet.

I’ll conclude with one funny quote by Tom Mueller that only cynical engineering practitioners as myself can be truly amused by: “There are a thousand things that can happen when you go to light a rocket engine, and only one of them is good.”

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