Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey

21Jan/13

Innovation vs Status Quo in Science, the Arts and Business

The Visioneers: Skeptics Society Lecture at Caltech, Pasadena - Jan. 20, 2013

Jan. 20, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena -
The Visioneers, with author Dr. W. Patrick McCray, streamed online as shown here

First is the good news that the Skeptics Society at Caltech is now streaming their lectures live online. Usually I would prefer to be there in person, but in a pinch streaming is a great option for those who are not in Pasadena, or those who are, like me, but have not enough time to get over there early enough to get a seat, park, wait, etc.

Yesterdays lecture by Dr. W. Patrick McCray was derived from his research and book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. If you are interested in the entire lecture, keep an eye on their website for when they make the DVD available - usually a collection of lectures.

I talk a great deal in this blog about the importance of having creative people join any discussion about science, ethical science, the future of science, etc. Dr. McCray made it clear why we also need the overview reflections of historians as we think about science and plan for the future of science. Those doing science are primarily, of necessity, bound up in the now of what they are doing; an historian is able to take the time and look from the vantage point of someone analyzing science with a perspective broad enough (history) to grasp implications of importance regarding what has gone before, what is happening now, and what might be in the future.

Dr. McCray's Visioneers are scientists who "blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future… (from the Facebook page for event)." He discusses Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill and MIT-trained engineer Eric Drexler. O'Neill explored the idea of space colonies, when that was all the rage in the 1970s as we began to realize that we were running out of earth (population explosion) and possibly destroying it (environmental damage by humans*1). Drexler came along in the 80s and pursued the idea of staying here on earth and fixing things via nanotechnology (the advent of computers and molecular biology allowed him to envision building little machines from atoms up that would do good things).

The support and controversy these men stimulated in our society, our government and in the scientific community itself make the lecture well worth watching and the book well worth reading. What I want to address here are the book-end observations made by Dr. McCray in his lecture, for I think they address the crux of what all of us need to be deliberating about.

The lecture opened with the statement: " The challenge is how to differentiate between radical new ideas that are great, true and worth pursuing and those that are quackery."

Dr. McCray cited what I consider a tired cliche: "We need to keep an open mind."

I have spoken here before about the problem with new ideas in the Arts. How they are often (usually?) met with scorn and ridicule. Audiences fled the concert hall in reaction to the new sounds of Debussy.  Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, today regarded as the pinnacle of ballet greats, was considered undanceable when it was written. The Impressionists, Cubists, and today many modern painters were/are scorned by the public and critics initially.

Seeing the parallels between reactions to new Arts and reactions to new Science is important. And it is not just "open-mindedness" that allows a few to appreciate new things, to grasp the difference between new that is valid and important, and new that is quackery.

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13Jan/13

Science and the New Space Race

Jan. 10, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena

Jan. 10, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena

 

I attended a great panel discussion about the future of the space race at Caltech on January 10, 2013. This panel was assembled by students at the college as part of a Keck Foundation grant. I have complained in this blog that so many community forums really only have as their motive the PR of some writer, thinker, organization. I am not surprised that when college students organize and host an event, they do not shy away from controversy, that they saw this opportunity as one to participate in civic activism as well as to learn from some luminaries in the field. My hat goes off to these students! The panel consisted of two professors from Caltech, Fiona Harrison (Professor of Physics) and Paul Wennberg (Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering) as well as  John Grunsfeld, astronaut and now at NASA, Steve Isakowitz, Exec VP at Virgin Galactic, John Logsdon, founder of GW Univeristy's Space Policy Institute and Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. I'll share the discussion of the evening, in context of the discussion I have been riffing on here for last bit,  after I return from a trip up north (in southern California jargon, that means to San Francisco).

(Update: It made more sense for me to post about the Skeptic's Dr. McCray lecture first, as a lead in to this panel discussion and others which I will address later. 1-21-13 - Terry)

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12Jan/13

The world loses a young prodigy who fought for equal access to knowledge

Aaron Swartz - a prodigy who devoted much of his life to freeing up scholarly research and information for the masses, has taken his own life - a victim of depression. My heart and admiration go out to him today. I have often spoken about the need to keep scholarly information free to anyone who needs it for research - in order to have a democracy that is actually democratic, that gives every human being an equal opportunity to do whatever she or he wants to do by having access to the same knowledge base.

Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and online activist: “The world was a better place with him in it . . . . The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”

see article I recommend for above quotation and full details about this remarkable young man's life and accomplishments - and the trouble he ran into fighting his ethical war against those who would own information - can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html?_r=0

(this photo is derivative of and uncredited photo on Mashable.com)

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3Jan/13

The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate? – Part 2, Landing on Asteroids?

In 2010 President Obama promised that we will land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025:

. . .  we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.

Yet, the National Academy of Sciences (in a report filed Nov/Dec 2012) thinks that is a dumb idea. And apparently NASA isn’t behind it either, as it has not allocated resources for this proposed mission, nor has it picked an asteroid on which to land (see AP report 12/5/2012).

Even worse, the Science Academy reports that NASA is adrift with little to no future plans, and blames the public and our elected leaders for this problem given the fact that we have given NASA no guidance.

I must state here that AP says a NASA spokesperson, David Weaver, told them that NASA in fact does have clear and challenging goals. Of course, we wonder, given the report, what those clear goals are.

So, what’s the deal? Who is telling NASA what to do? Who is telling President Obama and other leaders what NASA should be doing? What is NASA doing? Are we headed to an asteroid and Mars? Should we be?

I've also gotta state here that, you know, I am a member of the "public," and nobody asked me what I think NASA should be doing. I mean the news media and political leaders are so easy with their "the public is not providing guidance," but what does that mean, really? They haven't asked us for our guidance as far as I know. Or, by "public" they mean some select group that someone hand picked to represent the public, rather than what most of us citizens think of when we hear that word "public,"  namely, "us."

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