Since I’m working on NaNoWriMo, I’m afraid I’m going to be confined to riffing off of CW’s posts for a while, because between work, the novel, guests, and schoolwork (not mine) my creative juices are about tapped out, not to mention my time.
But CW’s last post did get me to thinking about Cosmos. Carl Sagan inspired me to look into fundamental science as a career when I was about 10. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that my father was a meteorologist and my mother was a grade school teacher pretty much sealed my fate in a technical career when I was born (by temperament, not by their urging – I can not remember a time when they said “you ought to do this or that”, ever – but then I never talked about majoring in literature, either). But the pre-teen naturally begins to look past the parents for role models, and Sagan provided a broader canvas on which I could paint my dreams.
In high school, the large brushes of childhood were replaced by the fine drawing instruments of adulthood, and the canvas began to look like something real. My high school chemistry teacher channeled my energy into the exact branch of science I was to follow into graduate school – Physical Chemistry.
So, having completed my training in the late 90s, I came back home to the house I grew up in and chanced upon the companion book to Cosmos, sitting up in the attic. I re-read it with the critical eye that had seen Sagan crash and burn through his Nuclear Winter to Nuclear Autumn backpedaling, on into his hugely improvident predictions of environmental disaster from Gulf War I. Sagan is an object lesson in avoiding the personality cult in science, and in the need to doubly scrutinize what public science figures say when they are talking outside of their field of expertise. But Sagan was always big enough to admit his errors of fact, if not his errors of public persuasion, or the emotional drivers that led him to cherry pick his models and violate Feynman’s directive to try to poke holes at one’s own theories.
So I still read Sagan with interest. In re-reading Cosmos, I came to the passage criticizing Star Trek. Now, I am second to none in being quick to point out that Star Dreck is not real science fiction, being as I am an aficionado of Hard SF. Hell, I enjoy a good Spider Robinson story more than a “Kirk Does the Green Alien Chick” story, and Spider sure as hell ain’t hard SF. But Sagan’s particular criticism was yet another example of a very smart guy talking out of his posterior orifice because no one around him told him he was full of it. And, in my usual wandering style, I have some to the point of the post, and the connection to CW’s.
Sagan’s criticism was that the likelihood of two alien races meeting each other at the same level of technology is so small as to be infinitesimal, and that the more advanced race, if warlike, would quickly conquer the more backward one.
The problem with this is that Sagan modeled his technological progress on a smooth function. It doesn’t matter if one takes a linear or non-linear approach to modeling technological progress, I think it is a form of temporal bigotry borne of living in the 20th century that would lead one to look at the pace of technological progress as anything other than a series of step functions, or more accurately, a series of sigmoidal curves.
Technology is based on physical phenomena. Another great physicist who liked to talk out of his posterior orifice, Ernest Rutherford, once famously said that all science was either physics or stamp collecting. Stamp collecting is highly underrated by people who work on mathematical models all day. Without careful observations of physical phenomena, theory would be so much mathematical masturbation. And technology does not progress in the long term without the discovery of new physical phenomena.
As CW and I have noted before, the pace of fundamental progress in the physical sciences seems to have slowed in since the 1930s. The main advances since the 1930s have been in biology, which has taken the fruits of the gains of quantum mechanics and applied them to living systems. What the latter half of the 20th century has been in terms of technological progress, is using the gains of the past 150 years to do exciting things, such as going to the moon, or making computer networks. Neither of those relied on much new science, however. What they mostly relied on was wealth – having the infrastructure available to afford such luxuries.
For example, computers could have been networked in an “Internet” of sorts back in the 1960s, with terminals spread out to at least public libraries. The expense was too great, and attachment to information in books too great, so that the Internet needed to wait, not just until the invention of the PC, but until people got comfortable enough with the PC to have enough of them to cheaply network.
The pace of change in the modern world still seems to be accelerating, but that is because the pace of discovery in the past did not allow the human race to catch up to all of the implications of the previous discoveries. Some new technologies will come of nanotechnology – but not as many as people expect (I hold nanotechnology patents, I know what I’m talking about, here), just as the Human Genome project hss not yielded the results that HGSI was promising in the middle of the tech bubble. These things take time to work out.
We are now approaching the flat part of a step, or more accurately, we are at the second inflection point of the sigmoidal curve that makes up our step. Progress will still be made - the first derivative is still positive, but the second derivative is now decreasing, not increasing. And that is what is wrong with Sagan’s picture of the progress of technology. Once a race has mined and exploited all of the physical phenomena that are there to be discovered in their corner of the Universe, the flat part of the step will cover a long, long time indeed.
It may be that a race will need to get close to quasars, or black holes, or objects yet undiscovered, in order to observe a phenomenon that lends itself to revolutionary technology such as the one at the NP junction that led to all the stuff I’m using to communicate with you right now. I think that the probability of two races meeting while on the flat part of a curve is much, much greater than what Sagan expected.
The trick, the duty, of a race living in the “flat time” is to inculcate the kind of love of discovery that will allow that race to take advantage of new observations when and if they are made, and not dismiss the new science and technology as too disruptive. If humans are any example (and I think we are – fundamental evolutionary processes, even on silicon or germanium based life forms, will not be much different if something sentient is to evolve on another world), then sentient beings tend to get fat, dumb, happy, and conservative when not pushed by their environment to learn and grow.
I think what worries CW and I is that we see signs of a waning in the will to explore. Even if space colonization is economically unfeasible right now, the desire to do what we can do has been lost in NASA bureaucracy. Books about space exploration abounded when I was in elementary school. Now they are lost in a sea of Dora the Explorer. And she's exploring what exactly? I now look to the private sector to rekindle the sense of promise I felt as a kid looking at the plans for the Shuttle. Little did I know at that young age that the Shuttle itself represented a lowering of expectations. You can also see those lowered expectations in peripheral things, such as our literature and architecture. We have become, in many ways, a smaller people.
I’ve seen a lot of idiots talking recently about the cost of the LHC – yet that is the one great hope we have right now of discovering something new that might re-ignite the sense of progress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mind you, I don’t think it will any time soon, but it might. That is worth a lot of coin of the realm to attempt to capture. And so I come to a final, political musing. Like the Coalition, I am determined to make Obama my president, too. The brightest spot I see (not the only bright spot, just the brightest) is his commitment to science. Let’s all push forward on that frontier, and rekindle the imaginations of our children.