I’ve written in the past about ideas that, while not entirely feasible, are still helping push our society forward in the direction of a better tomorrow. With science and technology, it is often just as important to be ambitious as it is practical, unless we want ours to be a country of stagnation – comfortable but lagging in every way that matters.
It seems straightforward. Innovation and progress are goals to strive for, and for a long time that’s what our country fawned over, but in the past few decades those ideals have been replaced by fear and xenophobia. Often xenophobia takes the shape of fearing people different from ourselves but it also applies to ideas different from what we know. America is now a country desperate to hold onto a perceived past – imagined more than real – of a simpler time and devoid of shades of gray. It fears what it doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to want to learn.
Conservatism, even it’s name suggests an inability to move forward, is built on fear. It’s chief weapon is fear, and it is swung wildly and ferociously in all directions. What is opposition to immigration reform if not a form of racial fear? What is opposition to climate change if not a form of environmental fear? What is opposition to gay marriage if not a form of sexual fear? Progressivism has it’s flaws, but it often in the form of caring too much, not too little. It dares to try to change things. Conservativism clings on.
I didn’t intend to write this as a way of bashing conservatives, but it is important to note their popularity in America as a testimony to how far we’ve fallen. Instead of approaching the changing geopolitical, social and environmental challenges with gusto and a will to always try to better ourselves, we’ve allowed an entire national political party to provide a giant hole in the sand for defeatists and pessimists to stick their heads in. And that’s because fear is easy. It’s easy to be small, and isolationist, and enjoy the sense of superiority that tribalism provides no matter how objectively false it is. What is harder is doing something.
That is why, when an ambitious plan comes out by a creative thinker it is crucial that we let it thrive.
In many ways, Elon Musk is the best of what American capitalism can provide. When people think of that “entrepreneurial spirit” that is so often trumpeted by politicians and cited by frauds like Donald Trump to justify their wealth, it should be for people like Elon Musk that they look to as the defining argument.
Elon Musk, a South African-American inventor and entrepreneur, is bold. While still in his 20s he co-founded Paypal, that site you use to securely shop online. It was enough to make him rich, but he didn’t rest. Next he co-founded SpaceX, that privately owned space program that is still the only one that has ever launched a nongovernmental space craft into orbit and successfully docked with the International Space Station. (Musk has said in interviews that he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation book series, so give another point to the power of science fiction as a motivator.) Finally, he went on to co-found Tesla Motors and still works as head of production design. He’s a guy who gets things done.
Now, he wants to get it done quicker by moving people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in times that conventional transportation cannot come close to matching.
Wired.com describes his plan:
Musk’s proposal to revolutionize mass transit is called the Hyperloop. It would transport passengers in individual aluminum pods powered by turbines and solar energy in above-ground tubes, cost $6-10 billion to build, and make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes.
But it only exists in a 57-page alpha white paper. And if someone grabbed the idea and ran with it today, Musk says it would still be 7 to 10 years away.
It began with an idea similar to the vacuum tubes used to shuttle the check from your car to the bank. But maintaining that level of vacuum for hundreds of miles, according to Musk, was untenable. “The basic calculations for energy was enormous,” Musk said during a conference call. And it’s also incredibly dangerous. So Musk enlisted a dozen engineers from Tesla and Space X to start playing with the idea. They wanted to use to existing technology, require as little land as possible, and get the pressure down inside the tube, determining that about half-bar of pressure was the sweet spot. And now Musk and Friends have released it to the world.
Two tubes — one for each direction — would be mounted on pylons spaced between 50 and 100 meters apart, and Musk envisions the Hyperloop running alongside Interstate 5 in California. Because it’s elevated, there’s less environmental impact (farmers can still use their land), it can be built to withstand earthquakes (using the same technology as buildings in the Golden State), and would have solar panels mounted on the roof.
“There is way more surface area on the top of the tube than you need [to power the Hyperloop],” Musk says. “You would have more power than you could possibly consume.”
Inside the tubes, each pod would be mounted on a pair of skis made out of inconel — the same metal that SpaceX uses to handle high heat and pressure — with air being pumped through small holes in the skis to create an air cushion. Combine that with magnets and an electromagnetic field, and you’ve got levitation with very little drag.
Now this is years away from being a reality. That’s fine. In fact, that’s a good thing. It gives us a vision for the future that is beyond the next 140 character tweet we’ll read. It should motivate and inspire, and more importantly, remind the next generation of would be engineers that, to paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, they come from a country that is not descended from fearful men. America can still do great things, if only we have the courage to dream of them.
A West Virginia State Delegate has proposed a bill to make reading Science Fiction in schools mandatory. A refreshing idea from a surprising source (the delegate is…wait for it… a Republican). Unlike his conservative colleagues who apparently can’t wrap their heads around science in any coherent way, Ray Canterbury (no, not Bradbury but close) has a goal of promoting science and technology in the classroom as a way to encourage young minds towards thinking about science as a tool of progress.
Canterbury explains the goal of the bill:
“To stimulate interest in math and science among students in the public schools of this state, the State Board of Education shall prescribe minimum standards by which samples of grade-appropriate science fiction literature are integrated into the curriculum of existing reading, literature or other required courses for middle school and high school students.”
I love it, and it may help students get out of the scientific rut they’ve been in for the past few decades, as we’ve seen many countries pass our dominance of scientific thinking and research. I’ll let the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson show you how bad it’s gotten for America lately:
The kids aren’t really at fault, it’s adults doing adult things like going to war and cutting taxes that make doing science so hard to fund in this country, but the kids are the key because, to borrow a cliche, they are the future. Some of them will grow up to be senators, congressman, and – a few of them – will be Presidents. They need to be better than what we’ve got now (see the links above for some facepalm examples). They need to understand the world around them better than what we’ve got now.
It’s been 60 years since the heart of the Space race era. In those heady days, it was not just a nice thought but a compulsion to look at big dreams and try to find ways to tackle them. Of course, in the middle of all that high mindedness, there was the lurking, dangerous seed of nuclear warfare and global annihilation due to stupidity and competition (referred to as the “Cold War”). But surrounding that folly was a national feeling that there was nothing too big or too challenging that technology and spirit couldn’t solve. Young boys (unfortunately, it was mostly boys) flocked to careers in science and math.
The science fiction of the era reflected that sentiment as well. Science as progress was everywhere. Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov were literary giants, writing down the future in fictive form. It wasn’t a matter of if we would colonize our solar system within a century, but when. Here we are, 12 years passed 2001 and that movie still feels futuristic. I’ve read a great deal of their books in high school and college (No, I wasn’t really the life of a party), and their visions of human ingenuity and technological utopias were always motivating me to learn more about science. I desperately wanted to be a member of a bold and intelligent space crew, tackling an impending threat to mankind through science, using futuristic robotics and computers to save the day (Trust me, I REALLY was not the life of a party).
Those kinds of stories seem quaint and naive now. Slowly, as the 60s moved into the 70s and the Space Age that culminated in the moon landing receded from memory, science and technology were viewed with a growing wariness. Soon, the artificial intelligence in movies was more likely to be terminators than bicentennial men. Eventually, as science began more and more to conflict with conservative worldviews, science itself was cast into suspicion and accused of threatening profits with inconvenient truths. The current trend in science fiction literature and movies is to portray dystopian visions of societies destroyed by their own hubris. Technology will betray us, these stories say. Be careful. It’s an appealing and scary idea because more and more technology is everywhere. We are a creature divided: enjoying the technologies we fear.
That’s why a concerted push to reintroduce positive science fiction back into the classroom and onto the radar of our children could be so important. It could be the game changer we need. It could start to repair the damage that decades of scorn and defunding have done to our national opinion of science. If you look at the greatest achievements that mankind has ever done, all of them have been from improving or embracing emerging technology (from the wheel all the way to the Internet). I want to live in a country that builds stuff, like really cool stuff. I’d rather we have less Stealth Bombers and more Space Shuttles. I want to see us reach for the stars literally. Science Fiction at its best is a reflection of who we are and what we can be. It explores the human condition just as much as it explores alien worlds. Kids who read about floating in space, might someday want to know how it really feels. Kids who read about a problem solved with pragmatic innovation, might someday want to innovate. What perhaps is the most thrilling development in a new enthusiasm for science and science fiction is that it is no longer a males only domain. We have the opportunity to inspire ALL of our children. In the end, maybe we don’t need to wait until 2030 to go to mars, we would just need to walk to the library.