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I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic. It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.
As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget. Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget. Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%. The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.
Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means. Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers. The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think. As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.
The sequester will hurt basic science research. Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.
Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government). The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.
Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing. Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness. It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about). Social security does nothing to further that objective!
The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn. And what is the point of even running a farm then? So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget. Raise taxes even. National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists. That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.
I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post. Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics. Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal). The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain). The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab. The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.
Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.
The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall. Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional. So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake. As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come. However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them). The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression. The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.
I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning. Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame. The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden). Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things. If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.
Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here. I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit. Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s. I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.
I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon. Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing. The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.
So, it is not easy to do what has never been done before. In October of 2010, I wrote about the National Ignition Facility, a joint scientific project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California. The National Ignition Facility aims to recreate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs on a microscopic controlled scale. The project is ostensibly designed as a United States defense project to model the nation’s next generation nuclear arsenal without use of (treaty-prohibited) nuclear testing, but cognoscenti have long suspected that it is a way that our country can pursue fundamental energy and physics research despite the apathy (or outright animosity) of a do-nothing congress and politically divided citizenry.
Unfortunately the facility experienced a series of setbacks, and the massive laser array did not deliver the promised energy output. However, this month all that changed! On July 5th the facility briefly powered up its 192 lasers to deliver a 1.85-megajoule blast that released more than 500 trillion watts of power. Although the laser beam was only active for a miniscule fraction of a second, during that brief time it was focusing a thousand times more energy than the rest of the entire United States was actively using. Remember Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” shouting about “1.21 gigawatts!” and desperately running his hands through his hair? Well, a gigawatt is a billion watts. This laser beam produced a 500 terrawatt blast–500 trillion watts. So just imagine Doc shouting “1.21 gigawatts!” four hundred thousand plus times!
The successful test firing brings the NIF within tantalizing reach of their desired ignition breakthrough—the glorious moment when scientists flip a switch and create a controlled, contained fusion reaction. Building such a “star in a jar” is the first step on a road to titanic engineering and energy-creation achievements which could reshape humanity’s place in the universe.
Last year I wrote about generational cohorts: the idea that America’s current population can be roughly divided and characterized by age. The essay provoked a philosophical backlash from my contrarian friend Mike, who was opposed to the idea that large groups of people can be broadly characterized in such a manner (or “stereotyped” would be the pejorative way of saying it). I still firmly believe that groups of people do fit in to larger categories—that is why we have nations and tribes and professions and classes. It is why history is a meaningful discipline rather than an incoherent babble of individual voices. Characterizing what those categories are and what they mean is the goal of the social sciences and the humanities. However, my friend raised some legitimate points too. To defend his side of the argument–at least as I imagine it–I am going to write about a wholly unsatisfactory (albeit immensely entertaining) interpretation of generational cohorts, the Strauss-Howe generational theory, which is a ridiculous magical prophecy pretending to be a historical interpretation of seceding generations.
The Strauss-Howe generational theory is a bizarre amalgamation of historical perspective, Jungian archetypes, and craziness. The “theory” categorizes generational cohorts into four repeating archetypes: hero, artist, prophet, and nomad. Each generation has one of these characteristics (for example the World War II generation–the “Greatest” generation–was a “hero” generation). According to Strauss-Howe, the pattern sequentially repeats, and has done so throughout Western history! The World War II generation was made up of heroes who came of age as pragmatic civic-minded optimists during a period of crisis. They were able to work together as a team to overcome the disasters of their time. The Silent Generation grew up in a crisis and afterwards were overprotected and controlled. In middle-life they synthesized the values of the previous generation into an institutionalized canon of ideas and philosophies. The Baby-Boom generation was a counter-cultural revolutionary generation who eschewed the heavy handed group-think of the previous two generations. Generation X is a nomad generation, forever adrift, lost, and worthless. The Millennial Generation is a group of pragmatic civic-minded optimists growing up in an era of crisis. They are destined to work together as a team to overcome the disasters of their time…and so on.
Strauss and Howe flesh out their theories in their book “Generations: The History of America’s Future” which adds a longer historical context to the paradigm. Each generation must contend with a historical progression of “Unraveling”, “Crisis”,“High”, and “Awakening”. For example: the Great Depression & World War II provided the crisis; the Great Power era marked a high; the culture clash and protests of the youth movement were an awakening; the culture wars and 9/11 represent an age of unraveling. Then the pattern begins anew: the Global Financial Crisis we are now living through is another full-blown crisis (until the Millennials come of age and fix it). The generational cohorts repeat this cycle again and again (with one exception below).
Here is a list of each generational cohort by birth year and archetypical temperament:
Enlightenment Generation (1674-1700): Artist
Awakening Generation (1701-1723): Prophet
Liberty Generation (1724-1741): Nomad
Republican Generation (1742-1766): Hero
Compromise Generation (1767-1791): Artist
Transcendental Generation (1792-1821): Prophet
Gilded Generation (1822-1842): Nomad
Progressive Generation (1843-1859): Artist
Missionary Generation (1860-1882): Prophet
Lost Generation (1883-1900): Nomad
Greatest Generation (1901-1924): Hero
Silent Generation (1925-1945): Artist
Baby Boom (1946-1960): Prophet
Generation X (1961-1981): Nomad
Millennial Generation (1982-2004): Hero
“Homeland” Generation (2005-?): Artist
I have only included the familiar American Generations. Hilariously, Strauss & Howe continued back through the English Civil War, the Reformation, the War of the Roses…all the way to the Hundred Years War. Coincidentally, sharp-eyed observers will note the absence of a heroic generation around the time of the Civil War. The authors of “Generations” believed that the Transcendental Generation and the Gilded Generation were so debased, fractious, and incompetent that the war came about ten years too early. The Progressive generation was broken and disabused rather than ennobled. It became a bitter generation of introspective artists rather than battle-scarred heroes (although of course they did, you know, fight the Civil War). The lack of Civil War heroes however is the only break in the 500 year long continuum of the 4 part cycle–according to Strauss & Howe.
Anyway, I think that provides you with enough of an overview of the Strauss & Howe theory. If you are interested, there is more information out there (the Wikipedia page lays everything out nicely in tables). The book, coincidentally, was a best-seller. It particularly appealed to marketers and politicians of the Baby Boomer generation—both Al Gore and Newt Gingrich cite it as fundamental to their beliefs.
And so we come back to my friend’s point: that the behavioral characteristics of generational cohorts are arbitrary categories made up by academics (or frauds) in order to aggrandize themselves. The Strauss-Howe theory does indeed seem to be such a model. The cohort breakdown presented above might have some merit, but the four repeating archetypes do not. If we took out all of Strauss & Howe’s terminology and replaced it with random animal names (and then attributed selected characteristics of those animals to each era) we would have an equally valid paradigm. In fact astrologers have done exactly that for millennia. We can project Strauss and Howe’s model forward and learn…what? That there will be a crisis in the near future and that the current generation will solve it to the best of their abilities (presuming they aren’t screw-ups like the Civil War generation). That doesn’t seem very profound or useful. Macrohistory is a treacherous window. It is so large that a well-meaning scholar can find anything in it. I haven’t given up on differentiating groups of people by age, but seeing how silly such a game can quickly become provides a salutary lesson to proceed through the ages with care.
While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years. There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster). It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.
So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design. Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem. This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood). It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!
The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash. Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down. Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely. Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside. Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans. The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants. Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.
Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine. Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.
Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?
Well no, not really. The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth. Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post). The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers). Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.
But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future. At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.
I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend. I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant). Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.
But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay. Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward. Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again. I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.
If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things. And of course happy new year to all of my readers!
[And as always--if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]
Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers. The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets. The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative: farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories. Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees. The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).
Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress. And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving. Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers. The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs. Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector. Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors. Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.
A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class. The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories. Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.
So are the Luddites finally correct? Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing. To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines. At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines. That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back. Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!). Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs. Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at. I don’t know. Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?
In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there. The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting. It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations. We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!
I have been thinking a great deal about demographics lately—or rather I have been trying to do so. Humans are not very good at thinking about large numbers of people: there is a limit to how many individuals one can maintain meaningful social relationships with, and, beyond that (tiny) number, the world is a big collection of dangerous & greedy strangers. Nevertheless it is worthwhile to contemplate some basics about population demographics because these numbers and trends have an astonishing power over the directions which human events take. One of the foremost questions historians ask about any given place during any era is “how many people lived there?” As soon as an answer is found (or approximated—since worthwhile demographic data is scarce throughout most of history) the historian then further wants to know how old the population was, how quickly it was replacing itself, who was doing what, where they came from, and what the gender ratio was. It is useful to sometimes jump back to these basic queries when thinking about the world today (and planning for the world of tomorrow).
A few contemporary examples will quickly illustrate what I mean. China’s growing ascendancy in economic matters comes as a result of demographics. China’s population is currently estimated to be 1,331,460,000, whereas the population of the US is estimated to be 307,006,550. If every Chinese person were a quarter as productive as every American person, China would still be wealthier as a whole. Knowing a nation’s population (especially in a rapidly developing world) means knowing its future.
Metrics other than sheer population numbers are useful to know as well. In Japan, nearly a quarter of the population is older than 65—a statistic which is casting long grey shadows over the continued viability of its welfare state (and is raising concerns about Japan’s continued economic and political viability overall). After decades of the one child policy, China is rapidly coming to face such a problem as well. Economists and other theorists are openly wondering whether the Chinese can get rich before they are caught in an old age trap similar to the one Japan is in.
All of this is critical because the overall population keeps growing exponentially. Japan and Europe might be curtailing their birthrates–and thereby diminishing their future economic and national clout–but the overall population keeps trending upwards. Such numbers mean power and wealth for nations and for the rich but they also mean greater struggle for resources for all of us, and, worst of all they mean greater devastation to the environment.
As you are beginning to see, demographics are one of the few useful tools for meaningfully thinking about the future. Technology changes, markets boom and bust, nations rise and fall, but the inexorable wave of births rolls on and forms the underlying context for these changes. Even forces which change the population numbers directly–migrations, wars, genocides, or plagues—become part of the larger story of demographics.
A second post on this topic will feature an overview of the different generational cohorts in the United States because, although in some ways we really live up to our motto “e pluribus unum”—out of many one–in other ways we are six (or 7) wildly different nations and the greatest divisions between us are not those of race or class or sex–but rather of age.
As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist. Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell. Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet. To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting. His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem. In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks. His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it. Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems. Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans. His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.
Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative). Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity. There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too. The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig! The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable. It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.
That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems. The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”. Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness. Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.
Is Rockman’s art gothic? I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail. There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech. I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”. Life endures and adapts even as the world changes. Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature, but we will need to grow quickly!
The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation. To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”
However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be. Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans. Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini. Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system. I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks). These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.
The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes. A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.
I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations. Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want. Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility). I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches. I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity. The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off). But I’m open to other ideas. We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.