I write this from Pasadena, where I just finished a public evening (that will be podcast soon on the site of KPCC FM radio) discussing with USC Professor Paul Rosenbloom and the Planetary Society’s Mat Kaplan the future of artificial intelligence, uplifting dolphins, and good or bad types of singularities. You know… small stuff.
Two weeks ago I spoke at Planet Fest (Why the Sudden Activity in Space?), prepping folks for the celebration of fantastic news, that we Earthlings were capable of sending a stunningly advanced robot that could lower itself by crane to the surface of Mars.
But there are implications that extend beyond science.
If you like being part of a civilization that celebrates science and intellect and progress… while willingly negotiating in openness and improving through the reciprocal criticism of faults… then you are behooved to lift your head, this season, and note the implications in politics.
It is no longer the process we knew in the days of genteel scholars like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley — when politics was a matter of choosing between an array of policy recommendations based on competing, fact-driven arguments, finding compromises and practical mixes of solutions that blended private and enterprise initiatives with a closely watched and accountable democratic-consensus state. That kind of politics is over in the United States of America. At least it is during this, the third phase of the American Civil War. One of the parties has been led – by some Australian and Saudi and American billionaires – down a path so biliously opposed to science and logic and facts that only about 5% of US scientists will have anything to do with it anymore.
(Indeed, my standard challenge is to name ONE broad professional caste of intellect and knowledge that is not under attack at Fox, from scientists to teachers, civil servants, law professionals, journalists, professors, medical doctors, economists… I can name a couple that Fox leaves out of its jihad against intellect… but can you? And if you cannot name one… even one… then can we take it as a proved trend?)
== What role Curiosity plays in all of this ==
In contrast, this is the kind of jovially supportive whimsey that we used to get from both parties… and maybe we will again, someday. Scan this from last week… then go on to my reflection on the import of a single word.
President Barack Obama placed a congratulatory telephone call to the NASA team behind the Mars “Curiosity” rover, joking he might go for a Mohawk to emulate flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, and quipping that he needed to be told “right away” if the probe finds any little green men.
“If, in fact, you do make contact with Martians, please let me know right away,” he said in the call. “I’ve got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that that will go to the top of the list. Even if they’re just microbes, it will be pretty exciting.”
On a more serious note, Obama congratulated the team on Curiosity’s successful landing on the Red Planet a week ago and praised the technical skill required as “mind-boggling.”
“What you’ve accomplished embodies the American spirit, and your passion and your commitment is making a difference,” he said.”
“‘Curiosity’ is going to be telling us things that we did not know before and laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future, and that’s a human mission to the Red Planet,” Obama said.
And he pledged his “personal commitment to protect” government investments in science and technology.
== Okay, here’s a little reflection on a beautiful word ==
I am reminded of the one moment that impressed me most about Barack Obama… during his victory speech after the election in 2008. I listened carefully and shrugged as he said all the things we knew he had to say. Some promises from his stump speech. Some cordial words offering a handshake and negotiations to the other side. The usual platitudes one must say, about courage, neighborliness, patriotism, progress, lifting our eyes to the horizon… yadda. Good stuff, but expected.
Even a seasoned politician must feel a burning wish to insert a new thought now and then… even just one… that has nothing to do with politics, but instead what he, personally, feels to be missing. Something – perhaps – that he deems to be desperately needed.
Then I heard it… when he listed eight national character traits essential for our success… and there, mixed in with seven expected ones was…
Go back and watch that speech again. You’ll hear that word, which has no possible political redolence in the standard catechisms of the insipid left-right axis. And yet, it is telling… and tells a rich allegory, in light of our nation’s recent, magnificent accomplishment, It also lays down before you the stark clarity of the core difference between two sides in this, our tragic Civil War.
It isn’t about “left” versus “right.” It never was, and don’t let anyone get away with telling you it is.
This is future versus past.