Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Cynicism and its place in the New Space Community

Shubber Ali has me thinking about how we sell our dreams of an open frontier in space to ourselves and the next generation. Those of us who know how to do it realize the techniques must be a little different as the youngest listeners weren't alive for Apollo landings and first arrivals to a particular planet.

When I sell the dream to someone my age, it mostly comes down to whether they remember the excitement of the earlier age. If they do, they've likely suppressed it somewhere after childhood in order to get along with their lives. It reawakens with little effort. The only hard thing is to help the person figure out a way in which they can do something useful with whatever level of education they happen to have at the moment. From a sales perspective it is like having someone walk up to you, state how much they are willing to spend and then ask for advice on what to buy. Simple enough if the dollar value in the transactions isn't too large. When they get large, their natural skepticism kicks in and you have to be a better salesman with a better plan. There are many in our community that can close this kind of deal and raise anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars. There are many more who can close the variation that leads someone to help put in free labor on a specific project.

When I sell the dream to someone a little younger I usually have to pitch it as part of a path down which we obviously must walk. There are many ways to do this including Limits to Growth arguments, global catastrophe risks, and so on. I never pitch it as a humans vs robots kind of thing as they all know there won't be much distinction after a few more decades. If those fail my fall back tends to be 'What new thing are YOU going to do while alive?' The younger generation tends to have a little less money, but they have proven time and again to be willing to put in time as long as they are learning something interesting that might be useful in some other arena too. This dual purpose attention probably makes them the most sensible of all of us.

Am I a snake oil salesman to try to sell this dream when I know full well that it is going to be very hard (maybe impossible) to turn into plans that lead to reality? Am I guilty of fashioning a smoke and mirrors fantasy that cannot pass from phantasms to reality?

I learned how to give this pitch from academics. When you pursue a PhD you strive to solve some interesting problem for which there is no known solution. You don't pick just any problem, though. When you enter school you might have an idea of the subject you wish to pursue. With time, though, you prove your skills against some kind of tests and then apprentice yourself to your master (graduate advisor). It is really their area of interest that is going to become yours because they won't take you on if your interests diverge too much from theirs. The Master you choice is often the one who makes the best pitch to you. The details of that pitch concern your chances of success in research and your success beyond. Things don't always work out though. Potential careers can be wrecked if the master agrees to a research problem that is too hard (or easy), a time-line that is too aggressive (or not enough), or a plan that is not well thought out (or overly detailed). Pitfalls abound. If the team does not work well, whether it be a duo or a orchestra involving other students and collaborations with other masters, everything crashes and the accusations begin to fly. Grant money can be at risk. Are the scientists guilty of fashioning fantasies? Are we measured on the same scale?

Science is known to have unsolvable problems mixed in with very difficult problems. The harder a problem is to solve, the more credit a researcher tends to get to finding a way to do it. The advancement of Science requires us to take the risk of failure when we don't recognize the unsolvable from the merely difficult. Careers crash and burn and people with high intelligence and great potential for society have their egos crushed to the point where they accept minimum-wage employment to hide from the pain.

Does the opening of the space frontier require the same level of risk from us? How many young minds is it worth sending to crash against the rocky shores of unsolvable problems to get a reasonable chance of succeeding on the merely difficult shores around them? Many concede the risk is worth it to some degree for Science because new discoveries can vastly improve all our lives. Do we concede it for the space frontier too? Should we take more risk or less? What do we do for the people who manage to crawl ashore all broken and battered from their attempt? I suggest we build a monument to them and ensure the ones who don't make it don't fail in vain.
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