12 February, 2006

A failure to celebrate our successes

Were you aware that NASA's Mars Rovers are still functioning and exploring on Mars, more than two and-a-half years after they landed — more than two years after their original missions ended? Scientists weren't sure that the two machines could survive long, so they planned only three months' worth of missions. Yet the rovers continue to explore.

Why aren't we rejoicing about this? This is a magnificent accomplishment, coming at a time when every fool with an opinion is predicting the imminent demise of the United States' technological innovation, and that other nations are overtaking us — especially a rather large one in east Asia.

Really? How many other nations have had a robot rolling across the surface of Mars for nearly three years? How many other nations are anywhere close to having a robot rolling across the surface of Mars even for three days? We ought to be holding parades to commemorate this; the scientists and engineers involved ought to be national heroes, held up for our children's admiration. Imagine how many careers we could spark in science and engineering, if we simply acknowledged the magnificence of this achievement, and gave it its due consideration in the media! What talent we would inspire for these fields!

Do you remember when astronauts were recognized and admired, when every child wanted to grow up and be one of them? If you can, odds are that you're pretty old. These days, I can't find a single child interested in science, let alone in being an astronaut.

Why is that? When I was young, the space shuttle was celebrated; Voyager had recently sent back spectacular photos from Jupiter, then Saturn. There was no Hubble telescope, no Mars rover, no international space station. Personal computers were just born, and inspired a generation of programmers who entered the workforce and brought about the miracles that we see today.

Now we pay more attention to the shenanigans of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie than to the wonders of God's creation. (Do those two really need to be on every magazine cover in the checkout line, every week for the last few months?) We rejoice more in the latest XBox game than in the fact that a far simpler computer architecture continues to control a tiny machine as it roams a far-off planet.

Just how shallow are we?

The men and women who assembled these miraculous gadgets that we rely on every day — the gadgets that explore the surface of Mars, or else those that diagnose and heal the defects of human anatomy — these are the true celebrities of our society. They ought to be on every classroom wall and on every magazine cover; high schools should be inviting their alumni involved in these projects to come back and give talks to their students.


qkl said...

It is very sad that science and technology doesn't have the place it deserve these, after all we wouldn'y have all these gadgets if not of scientists in every major science fields.

I am not as optimistic as you about China, they are improving at a surprising rate in technology. And we should not forget India which as millions of engineers.

jack perry said...

I am not as optimistic as you about China, they are improving at a surprising rate in technology. And we should not forget India which as millions of engineers.

I think we're talking about two different things.

I'm not of the opinion that the United States "needs" to be ahead of the rest of the world in science and technology. In science at least, an innovation in one country translates easily into an innovation in another country. For example, a huge amount of the work in my field (computer algebra) was accomplished by Europeans. Yet the two premiere software packages in computer algebra are produced by a Canadian company (Waterloo Maple) and an American Company (Wolfram). As far as actual commercial implementation, the Europeans weren't even on the map until comparatively recently (muPad). Why? Partly because many European governments erect obstacles to such innovation. An Italian banker once told me all the hoops that someone has to jump through in order to start a business in Italy. What a nightmare!

Another reason, is that many people who get good in a scientific field come to the United States to work in industry or academia. Why? Many reasons, among them being that they feel they have more freedom here than they would in European universities, or again in China. I remember reading an article in an Italian newspaper about this; an Italian astronomer explaining that she was happy to work in the US first because Italian universities would not even consider her, due to their structure, and second because Americans pay her better. :-) So yes, some come because they think they will be paid more, or live in better conditions than their home country. In addition, American universities are regarded as the best in the world, although paradoxically enough most Americans themselves appear to be oblivious to this fact.

So, a lot of Chinese and Indians come to study in the United States, but an awful lot of them decide to stay here, too. All of them contribute to our science; even the ones that return and become great researchers in their own countries create some science here, then maintain ties after they return, and continue to contribute through those ties.

But even if they didn't, I welcome the establishment of serious scientific research centers in China and India. Science is one area where advances in one nation help the advances in other nations that also have large scientific communities — so long as the current system of allowing scientific information to flow freely through journals and periodicals is allowed to stand — and so long as Americans keep an interest in academia.

My PhD research, for example, builds on the work of Austrians, Germans, and Italians. I don't believe I cited a single American in my dissertation, aside from a Berkeley professor who is originally from Germany.

The real issue of prosperity and "staying ahead" boils down to how well your nation translates existing science into opportunity and wealth. In this regard, the United States does much better than pretty much any other country. Some nations are also doing quite well at it; I have read that Finland is an excellent example — think Linux, Nokia, Opera. A few countries may be doing much better than we in the short run even now (Finland, for example).

However, only the United States has shown the flexibility and capacity to adapt and incorporate the best ideas into business decade after decade. Twenty years ago, our media was reporting hysterically that Japan was going to crush the United States to become the next economic superpower, but you see how that turned out. Then it was the Koreans. China is the latest scare of the decade, and it is a while before they could even catch up, really. They may actually do it one day. So what? They have a billion people; it's rather miraculous that we're ahead now. How did that happen, except that American culture was once fascinated by science?

We ought to love science and exploration for its own sake; this is one aspect of human nature that distinguishes us from the animals. From the Christian point of view, scientific exploration can ennoble the soul and bring it closer to God. We Americans live in the blessings of a society that is abundant in the rewards of scientific investigation; think of the internet, the television, DVD and CD players, cell phones, medicine! It is often a question of wonder and awe, which we seem to have lost, taking for granted all these miracles that we use every day, which did not exist a century ago, and most of which did not exist even when I was born.

Somewhere in all that incoherent ranting is a reply to your comment, I think...? :-)

qkl said...

Yes you are right ;)

Forgot that it is a long way from theory to practice.