Congenital Optimism

Barry Commoner was a congenital optimist. So he proclaimed. He firmly believed that since it was human economic development that had messed up the planet, it was entirely feasible for humans to fix it. According to TIME magazine, he was a “scientist with a classroom of millions.” As the weather turns toward winter, and as we turn our attention toward preparing for the final exam, it is worth reflecting on the course as a whole and the narrative offered across the 30+ lectures in this course. Closing with the military-industrial complex, the bomb and the Cold War’s influence on science and engineering, and having stressed the manner in which knowledge reflects the material circumstances of its conception—Thorstein Veblen’s astute observation—I felt as though the course needed to conclude with a more cheering suggestion of how science and society interact.  My last lecture introduced Commoner’s science of survival.  Here, I intimated, was science not removed from society, but rather science and scientists firmly entrenched with the real world implications of their work and a genuine belief that the world can be made better, not just through human ingenuity, but also through social collaboration.  This was interested science and it’s a poignant message. I attach the lecture podcast & slides for public consumption.

Too: on a personal note, I wrote a book about Commoner’s influence on American politics and environmentalism. It started out as a PhD dissertation project that would allow me to merge my interests in science, politics, and environmentalism into a single project. The more I read about Commoner, the more fascinated I became with his career. When I finally worked up the courage to contact him (in 2001), I received a very friendly and encouraging reply. I first met him in November 2001, at his office at Queens College in Flushing, NY. This, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I recall a series of awkward questions on my part and interesting answers on his. At the end of the interview, he gave me a tour of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (a center he had founded at Washington University in the 1960s and shipped with him to New York when he retired after his presidential bid in 1980). Returning to his office door, he told me two things:

1. “You’re Michael; I’m Barry” (a sign of acceptance)

2. “You’re tackling an excellent and important topic.” (without a shred of self-consciousness)

He was right. Over many more visits to New York and many more interviews, he taught me, directly and indirectly, that the academic intellectual had a social responsibility to share his or her expertise with the public that allowed them to work, and this has motivated my conduct as an instructor and in my publications. Also over the course of those visits, Barry shifted from research subject to friend. He would bring fixings for lunch from a deli near his home in Brooklyn, and we would break for food midway through interviews. In his office, I discovered I loved roasted red peppers on sandwiches. This transition (to friendship, not the discovery of roasted red peppers) was compounded earlier this semester with his passing, and I am still coming to terms with it (his passing, yes, but also the evolution of our relationship). All the more, since I feel—on some level—that in our meetings he disproved one of his own laws of ecology. Roasted red peppers, time with Barry, learning from him: I enjoyed multiple free lunches, for which I remain very grateful. I miss him. As dire as our environmental situation remains, we are better for his example, leadership, and legacy.

Podcast: 2EE3.33 Nov 29

Slides: 2EE3.33

For an overview of Commoner’s life and work, see this New York Times video obituary. In addition, I recently had a letter published in Science, which covers his life as a public intellectual, especially in relation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can read it here: Egan_Commoner_Science-2012-1028

Back to the Future: Graeme Obree, Ingenuity, & the Case for Airships

If you don’t know who Graeme Obree is, you should. He’s a fascinating and inspiring character. In cycling circles, he’s a maverick and an innovator. He twice set the fabled hour record (how far can an individual cyclist go in a single hour) on bikes of his own design, including parts taken from his washing machine. He was also the individual pursuit world champion on a couple of occasions. Recently, The Flying Scotsman was made about his life, starring Jonny Lee Miller. But this post has less to do with the cycling exploits of a Scot, and more to do with his regular insistence of thinking outside the box and creative innovation. And how that alters the realms of the possible. This is inspiring stuff.

The following video clip celebrates the return of the flying Scotsman, and Obree’s current efforts to break the human-powered land speed record. More than that, it is a wonderfully inspiring little clip about the importance of ingenuity and passion (Obree evidently has plenty of both):

(Video from Humans Invent)

Link to an updated report on Obree’s efforts here.

But that’s not why I’m posting all this (in spite of the links to the bicycle, technology, Obree’s environmental passions, and other themes germane to this blog). Rather, I was especially moved by the following clip and the promise of airships, which hearken back to almost steampunkian vision of the world. But is this also the future? Think peak oil and think climate change. And think, too, about how and why we adopt or dismiss particular innovations (there’s an element of History 2EE3’s recent emphasis on technological systems and the nature of system-stabilizing technologies here) and embrace Obree’s enthusiasm for innovation. Maybe there’s something here. And you can bet I’d definitely be lining up to travel this way…

(Video from Humans Invent)

I especially like Obree’s fascination with “pushing the envelope of possibility.” This is a motivational message I would share with every student I’ve met. There also seems to be a broader renewed interest in precisely this. The X-Prizes, for example, encourage the individual or private pursuit of innovation in intriguing ways. But there’s more than inspiration at work here; there’s also vision, or the capacity to imagine new worlds and the constituent parts required to realize them. These are key themes in my interest in the history of the future—how past societies imagined their technological futures. In Obree, I think we see one such visionary, and one who inspires due in no small part to his devotion to the process.

Explaining the Fission Chain Reaction

Today’s lecture examined that fascinating decade-and-a-bit in the middle of the twentieth century wherein humans acquired the capacity both to destroy life with unprecedented power and also to create it. In my discussion of nuclear fission, I briefly touched on Leo Szilard’s walk around London in 1933 during which he conceived of a neutron chain reaction. His idea was pretty straightforward: if a single neutron could strike an atomic nucleus and release one or more neutrons, these subsequently released neutrons could initiate a chain of similar reactions, which could create an enormous amount of energy. I described this with the following image on the screen behind me:

Clear enough, although this is still a daunting abstraction to students not familiar with science. Maybe this will help. Thanks to @Canageek for jogging my memory about this video and encouraging me to post the following: