It’s the future. It’s the 21st century. I always imagined that by this time, there would be the requisite flying cars and Moon colonies. So one of the biggest disappointments of my adult life has been the realization that our species is almost 100% Earth-bound and that there has been no real progress made in leaving low Earth orbit for as long as I’ve been alive. In the 80s, it seemed like we were on an uphill trajectory. The books I read as a kid promised the whole solar system as our playground. Or at the very least, the Moon and Mars, if we want to be reasonable, I suppose. But thirty years later, it seems we have been stagnant for decades. So this year has been fairly exciting, space-wise. With the first successful commercial launch and space station docking mission by Space X and NASA Curiosity’s successful touchdown on Mars by what can only be described as an insane landing mechanism, there has been much to celebrate. But it seems that the celebrations are confined to a rather small circle. Beyond that, the interest wanes rather quickly, dissolving into inane banter about how it’s been done before, that the endeavor was useless because there are no instantaneous applications, or that the money could have been better spent on a thousand and one other projects that only receive attention when science spends the money instead.
Our world is amazingly short-sighted, not that that should be surprising. It has to do with our monkey brains. I can see it in my classroom, where students fuss and panic about how to get the answer to this question because it’s due right now, but often fail to see the bigger picture that will give them all the answers to all similar types questions in the future. I’m always flabbergasted that our investments and financial systems, which we entrust all our treasure to, behave in a similar fashion … fussing about quarterly returns and transient events that affect these commodities this much right now, but pay no heed to any long-term trends and often actively ignore them. This short-term thinking has gutted our innovative corporate labs, with most companies focusing on how to siphon more money out of what they already have instead of building something new that no one knew they needed. And when something truly innovative comes along, it’s often met with derision and a chorus of “I can’t imagine how that could be useful”.
I remember one time having a discussion with my PhD adviser. I don’t remember what it was about, but I do remember at some point blurting out in exasperation “Well, I can’t imagine how that would work!” To which he replied, “Imagine harder.” I didn’t have an answer to that. That phrase continues to motivate me as I have moved on to more challenging projects in online education (which is often derided because no one can imagine how it could work well). This spring was especially exciting, with Space X and Planetary Resources basically laying out through their actions and in their press releases their plans for colonizing the solar system. This was, of course, met with the “I can’t imagine …” line. But imagine harder. While people laugh at rich space tourists flying around in zero gravity for thirty seconds, I imagine vibrant space resorts, zero-G manufacturing, asteroid mining, and easy access to the rest of the solar system’s untapped treasures. That’s a multi-trillion dollar economy waiting right there for the right people to come along. Can’t imagine how mining an asteroid could be useful? I imagine rare-earths so cheap that computers become as cheap and ubiquitous as plastics. Can’t imagine why Curiosity is useful? I imagine now-proven technology for lowering increasingly massive payloads to planet surfaces paving the way for human settling, answers to our biggest questions about life, and a triumph of human cooperation and ingenuity (especially in light of the daily reports of increasingly horrific human-inflicted suffering). You can’t imagine? I can’t imagine how a baby could be useful. It makes a lot of noise and craps itself all the time. And it could grow up to be a drug addict. Why bother?
Everyone has their strengths and everyone has their weaknesses. There is wisdom in not commenting on something that you don’t know much about, or acknowledging that your comment shouldn’t be given much weight because you don’t know much about the subject (reading a Wikipedia entry doesn’t count!). My above comments about economics would fall into that category. Often times we don’t know very much about endeavors that we aren’t engaged in, which is why we tend to say “I can’t imagine …” But the entire world shouldn’t be limited by your imagination. These types of arguments are very common in the “debates” about evolution and climate change. If you really drill down far enough into the arguments, they always end with “Well, I can’t imagine how that would work!” That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that no one else can. Imagine harder. And if you can’t, step aside and let someone else do it. Because we all benefit when they do.