Impossible is a Human Invention

Photo by Tom A La Rue under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

He stood a quarter mile above the ground. The only support between the man and the far-down-below ground was a wire. Spectators on that ground gazed with joy (and empathetic nerves), while police men and women scowled with anger (although presumably some were entertained).

On an August morning in 1974, Philippe Petit walked a wire strung between the Twin Towers. (His crew had strung the wires between the towers the previous night.)

You may have heard this story. It was produced into an Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. I learned about Mr. Petit on a delightful TED Radio Hour segment on NPR.

Of all the poignant phrases spoken throughout the segment (and the rest of that show), one stood out among the others:

Impossible is a human invention.

Those are Petit’s words in response to one of the many excited questions from TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz.

Immediately upon hearing it, my brain started to wander, ponder, and plan—Sure, the sentence is uplifting, but what does it really mean?

A Literal Meaning

At first, I took it literally — we humans made up the idea of something being impossible.

Yeah, that certainly sounds good. But, as a friend and coworker of mine pointed out, the laws of physics prove that some scenarios are, in fact, impossible.

I’m nosy. So I replied, “Like what, for example?”

He thought for a moment. Soon he said, “Like, if that guy would have fallen off the wire, he would have fallen down and not up.”

I thought to myself, touché, and we ended that conversation.

A Physical Law

But wait. Let’s think about that — the idea of a physical law. A physical law explains that:

… a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions [are] present.

Professionals in physics do not take laws lightly. Laws are scrutinized far more than theories that appear to be repeatedly true. Here’s a good article on some physics’ definition comparisons.

After thinking through some scenarios, I started forming a conclusion that that sentence—Impossible is a human invention—wasn’t as cool or important as I originally thought.

An Alternate Perspective

But, then I had a thought — What if Philippe had some sort of device worked into his clothing that would force him to fall up instead of down?

I know, it’s ridiculous. And, as you’re probably thinking, that doesn’t disprove any physical law. I know.

Here’s my hypothesis:

Given a set of predictable conditions, there exist natural laws which prove certain outcomes are impossible. However, as humans, we have the ability to alter our environment to our benefit, thus making otherwise predictable conditions unpredictable. Therefore, nothing is truly impossible.

Putting It To The Test

I find hypotheses and theories (even my own) to be boring. I want to see them come to life. You can test this theory in three steps, similar to The Scientific Method.

  1. Identify an impossibility scenario.
  2. Change the conditions of the scenario.
  3. Test!

Think of the last time you said, “That’s impossible.” My latest scenario was something like this:

The client wants to build a robot that cooks and delivers bacon to their bed at 6:42 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. Their budget is $12.50, and I need to turn a profit.

“That’s impossible,” I said. And frankly, it is, but only under those conditions.

Considering our three steps, if we change a condition, we can create a solution. Maybe we have to change $12.50 to $12.5 million, or maybe bacon needs to be sausage. But in some way, and some how, it can be accomplished.

Wrapping Up

Impossible is a human invention is not literally correct. Our natural world has impossibilities in certain situations. It’s up to you to change the situation to make that event or task become possible. In other words, you can use the motivation from the sentence, Impossible is a human invention, to prove the age-old cliché, Nothing is impossible.

Now it’s your turn to use this logic to accomplish something you don’t think you can.

(Oh, and full disclosure — I do not know how to build robots, and I would never substitute sausage for bacon.)

This article was originally published for my (now retired) blog, The Polymath Lab, on Dec 31, 2014.

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