I’ve been enjoying Google’s Solve for X project, the good ol’ chocolate factories equivalent of the TEDx Talks. In fact it serves almost the same purpose of getting people who are experts in their fields to talk on their subjects. Of those I’ve watched so far though Neal Stephenson’s in particular struck me as being quite good at voicing a distinct problem that we have in society today; the lack of big advancements. There’s no grandeur, no massive construction projects that inspire awe and wonder at the abilities of human kind. We’ve worked on a lot of small things, driven miniaturisation to new levels and learnt a lot about our worlds basic nature. Our ability to push the frontiers of our world outwards though, opening new frontiers and resources has ground to a halt.
Looking back at some of the great ages of engineering projects and exploration they often go hand in hand. During the Victorian era, The British Empire was in full swing, opening new frontiers around the world. I’ll be the first to admit that their methods were at times more than a little questionable (and I have a feeling I may have written about this before), but they did bring new things for our scientists to work on, opened up amazing resources and spread power across the land. During the same period though there was also some of Britain’s greatest engineering works as well. Brunel and his peers drove bridges and trains across the land, built ships that pushed the boundaries of what people thought possible and tunnelled in places not previously considered.
The 50s and 60s saw something similar after the second world war. Science was seen as the great saviour of everything, sci-fi was at it’s most optimistic and tensions between superpowers drove space exploration to carry us to the moon.
Since then we’ve slowed and become quite introspective, stagnating to some extent. If we’d continued at the pace we had then our solar system was to be our oyster. 2001 wasn’t a ridiculously outlook for it’s time, everything in it was a feasible and considered movement forward in science and technology. We need to work to bring this excitement and wonder back. There lies the solution to our problems.
Take for example space requirements. We have a growing population and, unless we (as the human race) want to start thinning our numbers we need to find a way of making more room. We need to spread to new areas, meaning we need to spread off our comfortable seat on the land and start opening new frontiers. Space is the obvious route, as ultimately there is a ridiculous amount of room although there are practical limits to how far and quickly we can spread. In relatively close proximity though there’s the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt all open to the possibilities.
We also have the oceans though, where colonies could be formed to work with the wealth of resources that is covering about 2/3 of our planet. Maybe by living in conjunction with the ocean can help us to better understand it and look after it in a more considered fashion.
Another problem that might be worth considering is that of CO2 release into the atmosphere. Whether you believe in the changing of Earth’s climate through CO2 release aside, it’s very hard to deny that altering the balance of gases through the burning of fossil fuels is a bad idea. So why not try and turn that CO2 into a resource. Huge amounts of effort at present goes into developing forms of carbon lock in, although ultimately I think one of the best methods is still the use of plants. Plants need space though, which brings me back to my comments above; let’s start taking the solutions to this off-world. As an example CO2 could be bottled on earth and taken to off-world greenhouses, creating a warm and humid atmosphere for a crop to thrive in.
Why aren’t we making these big leaps? What pulled us back?
I think the answer may lie in the changing attitudes to science and particularly the few that the advancements of the past have driven some of the problems we see today. Nuclear fallout and pollution, weapons and oppression. Some of the uses the science has been put towards have not been in our best interests or has been pushed carelessly, without though of the consequences. I don’t we should be shying away from big advancement’s though because of this, we need instead to learn lessons from they way we got things wrong and apply these to future projects and develop our design processes appropriately.
How can we re-start the optimism we need? What can I do? I’m not in a position to really commit the big projects as one man. However I am in a position to voice my support, to be optimistic in my own ways about what we can do and what we can achieve and to try and spread the word. Science can help us move on. Science can help us advance. In the 50s we looked out with optimism, wondering at the possibilities in sci-fi and we should again. Learning lessons from our difficult times but striving on, outwards and upwards.