Can science fiction cure our innovation starvation?

Over at Pacific Standard this week, I look at Arizona State University’s fascinating Project Hieroglyph – a project to inspire us to think big with science fiction. The project, inspired in part by Neal Stephenson, just put out an excellent anthology of SF edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, featuring thought experiments worked out as SF stories.

In the preface to the anthology, Stephenson looks back at the great technological achievements of the mid-20th century, notably the Apollo program, and worries that we are no longer a society that can get big things done. We’re unwilling to think big, attempt truly ground-breaking ideas, or solve society’s biggest problems. We need to unshackle our imaginations, and SF can help us do that.

You can read my response at Pacific Standard, but here’s the tl/dr version:

Scientists and engineers have plenty of imagination. What they don’t always have are the incentives and support to take big intellectual risks. Making the case that we should tackle big ideas that might fail is Project Hieroglyph’s most valuable contribution. Neal Stephenson writes that “the vast and radical innovations of the mid-twentieth century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.” Pursuing insanely dangerous ideas—like nuclear weapons—is probably not the best way to build a better society. But risking failure is critical in science and technology. Unfortunately, failure is expensive, and the lack of money is probably the best explanation for why our society isn’t “executing the big stuff” that Stephenson wants to see. Scientists facing increasingly poor career prospects become risk-averse. Venture capitalists who complain that they only have 140 characters instead of flying cars are nevertheless hesitant to fund the expensive and risky development of technology that could be genuinely transformative. We certainly need imagination in science, and we should tell inspiring stories about big ideas. But to realize those ideas, we have to pay for them.

Thoughts?

Science of the Lambs

Screenshot 2014-10-20 11.56.43To help get us in the mood for Halloween, our most recent SCInema target was the psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs.

Some participants may have found the ease with which they could put their thesis advisor’s words into the mouth of a psychopathic killer a bit disturbing, that should not take away from your enjoyment of the sciencified quotes one bit.

Science Denial Then and Now

George Herbert’s “Vanity (I)” (1633)

Science has always made people uncomfortable. Witness the recent comments from the U.S. House Science (Denial) and Technology Committee:

We’ve had climate change since the day the earth was formed, whenever that was, depending on whatever you believe. — Rep. Bill Posey (R – FL)

I just don’t know how y’all prove those hypotheses going back fifty, a hundred, you might say thousands or not even millions of years, and how you postulate those forward. — Rep. Randy Weber (R – TX)

These confused politicians are part of a long tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of modern science itself. George Herbert was a friend of Francis Bacon, but the pious Herbert wanted nothing to do with Bacon’s radical ideas about the natural world. Herbert’s recent biographer John Drury explains:

Long before the discoveries of Darwin and modern astrophysics, some explanation of how everything had come into existence and how it worked was required. Divine creation provided that, had no challengers, and held the field. The natural world presented no moral problems. Rather, it provided ample scope for the investigation of the heavens and the earth which was beginning to gather pace among intellectuals, led by Herbert’s older friend Sir Francis Bacon. In his early poem ‘Vanity (I)’ Herbert was chary about such ‘philosophy’ as it was called, dismissing astronomy and chemistry as too speculative to occupy the valuable time of the practical Christian.

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury p. 12

Continue reading

Science Caturday: LOLCatCare

you may leave now

This week, tech giants Apple and Facebook announced that they would begin covering the cost of egg freezing for their employees, allowing female techies to put off childbearing until…some more convenient time, I guess. However, the fact remains that some employees will want to have kids, and Facebook’s new headquarters will provide daycare for dogs but not for children. Someone’s got to take care of the small humans! Luckily, I have devised an elegant solution that combines the best of the internet with real life: LOLCatCare™.

A crack team of cat nannies will care for the babies of Silicon Valley until they are old enough for preschool. Tasks such as feeding and changing babies, which are difficult for childcare workers without opposable thumbs, will be rendered unnecessary by training babies to eat and drink from bowls on the floor and use a litter box. Babies will gain key motor skills by chasing feathers and red dots. Blankets and boxes will be thoroughly investigated. Naptime, of course, will be led by top-level experts.

I see no way this plan can fail. You’re welcome, America. You’re welcome.

Epic-er

This was what was missing* from the movie Epic. I only wish we had acquired this treasure in time to donate it to the production of Stalking Squirrels for Science.
10690126_10100809715969514_7868532001581189980_n

*Also missing, doing anything nearly as clever as the mouse being like grizzly bear thing to play with the stereotype of insects and bats being creepy and evil.