Correcting Hubble’s vision

The Hubble space telescope was launched on April 24th, 1990. Unfortunately its main mirror had been ground incorrectly, causing spherical aberration. It meant the Hubble could photograph bright objects sharply, but the low light distant objects – the main purpose of its mission – were blurred.

Brilliantly, the scientists worked out that if new optical components were added, with the same error as the original one but in reverse, the problem would be solved. In effect they would be adding 'spectacles' to the Hubble to correct its aberration. A servicing shuttle mission was sent to do this, with astronauts performing long EVA sessions to fit the new parts. When the first photos later came in, they were sharp and clear, even of the faintest and most distant objects. Four more servicing missions went to repair, upgrade and replace Hubble's systems, including its five main instruments.

Hubble has been a spectacular success, revealing new knowledge about the earliest phases of the universe, and sending back a series of stunning and haunting pictures of distant and deep space objects. My own favourite is the Hubble "Deep Field," showing 10,000 galaxies, each with perhaps 100 billion stars, all contained within a tiny patch of sky previously thought empty.

One lesson to be drawn from this is that you do not necessarily have to get it right the first time. In many situations there is the possibility of later corrective action, or even of having another go. Progress is made by trial and error, by incorporating feedback from one trial into improving subsequent attempts. We learn from our mistakes.

Many successful people did not succeed the first time. Economic history reports many cases of entrepreneurs whose first attempts were unsuccessful, but who learned lessons along the way that were fed into their ultimately successful ventures. The same can be true in the arts, with authors sometimes writing several unremarkable books before finally hitting the big time with one.

You can spend years trying to perfect a plan, reluctant to try it out until you are sure it will work. But an alternative strategy might be to try what you think might work, observe where it falls short in practice, and use that information to modify a subsequent attempt. It usually brings success more rapidly.