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


All Hands on Deck Thoughts Evoked On Hearing A Science Star – Freeman Dyson – In Pasadena the Other Night

photo Dr. Mae Jemison; Prof. Freeman Dyson; Prof. Ed Stone; Dr. Leon Alkalai

An Interstellar Conversation at Caltech sponsored by the Keck Institute, Sept 9, 2014: Dr. Mae Jemison - Physician, Engineer, Former Astronaut and Leader of the 100 Year Starship Organization; Prof. Freeman Dyson - Physicist, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Prof. Ed Stone - Voyager Mission Project Scientist, Caltech; Moderated by Dr. Leon Alkalai - Ast. Div. Mgr, Systems Engineering & Formulation Division at JPL

Yes, it was one of those science fan nights for me at Pasadena's Caltech Beckman Auditorium last week. I've read most of Freeman Dyson's books and for years have admired his sensible approach to science as well as his accomplishments and ideas. There really is something special about seeing someone you have long admired in person. My niece Tess will wait for hours in line to hear Beyonce perform. I waited four hours once to hear Stephen Hawking talk in Santa Monica - and yes, it was worth it (not to mention the interesting people I met in line waiting with me - for there is also something intoxicating about knowing the people around you all share something of importance to you).

What I had not picked up on from Dyson's books was his fun sense of humor. When someone inquired about his concerns regarding communication loss once space travelers reach interstellar space, Dyson quipped that it might not be such a bad thing, considering that the tax collectors could not reach us out there.

Still, there was something eery about this evening's presentations. We are in the midst of a terrible heat wave currently in Southern California. 106 today as I write this post. It was close to that the evening of this lecture. The discussion with a former astronaut, Dyson, and the Voyager Mission scientist, was about plans to send humans in search of life on far off planets - through interstellar space. How will we fund it, what needs to be done to get us to that point, who is working on what? But all the while I could not help but be reminded of my favorite essay (another mystery as I read it years ago and have never been able to find it since, don't remember title, author, anything except the premise) which positioned a classical music lover treading water in the sea surrounding a sinking island which housed a chamber orchestra and attentive audience, water to their waists, refusing to budge out of politeness and denial as the island sank around them.

For it suddenly struck me as very odd that so many great scientists should be discussing how we are going to get to outer space when our own planet meanwhile is on fire. Now, I am sure some will say that we need people pursuing all sorts of ideas and plans if we are to move forward. But, as I said, it just struck me that we would be better off if all scientists, politicians, business people, citizens, artists, writers, everybody - would come together for a time to solve global warming, to get our own planet back on track, before we tackle any other big challenges. It seems that important. And to do otherwise, seems, well, arrogant and blind to reality.

Global warming is not somebody else's business, we need all hands on deck, please.


Brilliant Scientist, Technologist, Businessperson != Brilliant Anything Else, Part 1

Photo of Cafe Patio where Terry wrote Light 2.0

Cafe Patio where Terry wrote Light 2.0

Just because someone is a brilliant scientist, it does not necessarily follow that he/she is a brilliant anything-else. But our society misses this important fact time and time again. We turn to our premiere scientists, top technologists and successful businesspeople for their opinions on social issues. We ask them to speak at conferences on any number of topics unrelated to their fields of expertise. We call them when an important legislative issue is being deliberated, assuming that because they are so smart, they can help us.

The first time I started thinking about this was in 1998. I had just returned to Pasadena from Washington DC, where I set up an interactive media department in the then largest law firm in the United States. I am not sure exactly how or why I received an invitation to a luncheon at Caltech, where journalist and long-time presidential advisor David Gergen was scheduled to speak. But what I vividly remember was what David Gergen said about Microsofts' Bill Gates during his speech.

Gergen had recently interviewed Gates, and admitted that he had been very excited about meeting and talking with the man many considered the smartest in the world. But, Gergen shared, he was stunned to discover that Bill Gates had less knowledge of social issues that any person he had interviewed in his entire career.

Think of that for a minute. This is the man who subsequently went on to start a foundation to save the world; the man who through his foundation is setting the world priorities for what gets fixed, and what does not. This is the man our legislators and news media call on all the time for his opinion about any myriad of topics: What does Bill Gates think of Net Neutrality? the Wars? Poverty? World Health? Education?

Yesterday I read in the New York Times how Gates has now teamed up with a history professor to rewrite the history taught in all our U.S. high school classes - after he took one course on history from Great Courses! Of course he loved that history course! Bill Gates was a college drop-out. He undoubtedly spent little academic time prior to college ruminating and studying anything more than computer science. This was probably his first actual exposure to history. And suddenly, because he is so smart, we think he should determine our country's high school history curriculum? Oh, please.

Yesterday I sat out sipping an iced coffee at my favorite outdoor patio, and I listened to a Caltech astro-physicist telling his coffee companion all about what was the matter with this country: in a nutshell, he focused on the "illegals," food stamps ("problem is you start a food stamp program and there is no going back"), welfare, etc. Case in point. And let me speculate here: all the while he trashed those who have immigrated to the U.S. from south of our border, one of those immigrants was meanwhile mowing his lawn back at home, and another vacuuming his house . . . . He may be the most brilliant astro physicist our country has (this is not actually an endorsement of his scientific acumen, I don't know the man), but when it comes to social issues, he proved himself to me to be a socially uneducated racist bigot as I tried to eat my bagel sandwich and found myself quickly losing my appetite . . . . to be continued