31 Jan Conversations in Management: Hermes
“It’s a little unnerving; Hermes has sailed by earth so many times and we didn’t even know it.” -Paul Chodas, an orbit specialist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Unnerving! That doesn’t come close to expressing what we would have felt had we known! At the same time scientists were dismissing the idea that an asteroid striking the earth could have wiped out the dinosaurs, one missed us by just 300,000 miles. To put that into perspective, the moon is only 239,000 miles away. Equally surprising is that this near earth asteroid–named Hermes–has come our way 30 other times since it was first spotted in 1937–and no one noticed!
Hermes was first identified by German astronomer Karl Reinmuth. After photographing the night sky, he detected an unusual streak of light in the picture. Upon investigation, he realized it was an asteroid moving at a phenomenal rate of speed (hence the name). He followed it for several days before it disappeared as mysteriously as it had first appeared. Unfortunately for science, the impending World War kept folks from paying much attention to the discovery. By the late 70’s, however, astronomers Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and David Levy were actively searching for it. In fact, their discovery of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was made while searching for Hermes. They would have rediscovered Hermes when it visited in 1986, but ironically, their telescope was down for maintenance during the fly by. (Which also conclusively proves Ebert’s Law–the one time you don’t buy a lottery ticket is the one time you would have won the jackpot.) It wouldn’t be until October of 2003 that astronomer Brian Skiff of the Lowell Observatory would make the rediscovery.
There’s a lot we can learn from this little triptych of a story. The first is to pay attention to how we handle new information. Admittedly, the specter of world-wide Nazi domination may have been distracting, but there was another reason Hermes was ignored. The problem was that it didn’t fit astronomers’ notions of how an asteroid should behave. Hermes was bigger, faster and closer to earth than anyone expected. So astronomers in 1937 did what many of us do today–when faced with new and discordant data, we ignore it.
Secondly, we need to pay attention to how much faith we put in common knowledge or our acceptance of the way things are done. At the very moment the Alvarez brothers’ (one a Nobel Prize winning physicist and the other a geologist) case for the cause of the dinosaur’s demise was being discounted as far-fetched, a similar asteroid was plunging toward earth. Had Hermes wobbled by only a few degrees, we would have been as clueless about our own demise as the dinosaurs were of theirs’ (so much for having a bigger brain).
Finally, we need to pay attention to the fact that just because we’ve stopped looking, doesn’t mean things have stopped happening. The Shoemakers and Levy missed the discovery they spent two decades trying to make because they didn’t have a backup plan. They also overlooked the obvious–even though they stopped, the universe didn’t.
And there you are–it’s as simple as paying attention. Pay attention to new information because it’s easily ignored. Pay attention to your assumptions about how things are because you may be wrong. And pay attention to what’s going on when you aren’t looking. If you pay attention you might end up being surprised by what you find and at the same time avoid wearing that dinosaur in the headlights look!