One Historical Perspective
This week's column by Ctein
Picking up where I left off from the column of two weeks ago....
The 100 Year Starship (100YSS) conference had some process goals that were apparent to me (and probably several more I wasn't aware of). One, discussed previously, was an intellectual big tent, and we'll just have to see how well that works out. It's a toughie.
A second goal was much more immediately successful, because it's more easily and directly engineered. My previous comment about most of the people being like me? Well, no. One major goal was to make sure that the group was one where people like me weren't the norm, that the discourse didn't become dominated by stereotypical white male techies. I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with us WMTs; it's just that any monoculture very likely cannot build a successful starship. The obstacles to building a starship are not merely technological but highly multidisciplinary, and cultural monocultures rarely, if ever, come up with good solutions for novel and complex problem sets. Go read the original column for a longer discourse on this point.
It was done smartly and adroitly and without a fuss. Every panel, and every presentation had people on it who were without any doubt worth listening to, a fascinating and brilliant bunch, one and all. It just happened that white men were not in the majority. Go take another gander at the first illustration in the previous column. Uh huh. No fuss, no attention called to it, the norm had simply been shifted to, well...that's the point; there no longer was the norm. Meet the new status quo, not the same as the old status quo.
How will this hold up in the long term? I don't know. Groups tend to drift towards homogeneity; it's a well-known human tendency. It's just that it's one that leads to suboptimal decision-making.
As I also mentioned last time, this conference reminded me very much of a project I was involved in over four decades ago at Caltech. The parallels are striking and possibly meaningful. In the late 1960s, Caltech had a singular undergrad by the name of Joe Rhodes. Superficially he was unusual because he was the only African-American in his class; the undergraduate student body of the time was overwhelmingly white and universally male. What made Joe especially uncommon, though, was that he was socio-politically brilliant, a visionary, and possessed of some measure of charisma. The student body (ASCIT) changed its long-standing rules to allow student body presidents to be elected one grade level earlier, simply so that Joe could run for and win that office.
Joe conceived of something called the ASCIT Research Project, a.k.a. ARP. ARP was a unique and pioneering effort. It was, so far as I know, the first fully interdisciplinary study of a pollution problem, namely air pollution in the L.A. Basin. Ultimately, it became the model for Caltech's Environmental Quality Laboratory.
Folks today may find this hard to believe, but at that time virtually all work on pollution problems was done by isolated specialists. Nobody even thought about the fact that studying something like air pollution axiomatically involved chemistry, biology, mechanical engineering, mathematical modeling, sociology, politics, economics, and meteorology...just to name a few relevant fields. Specialists got interested in some particular problem and studied it from the perspective of their specialty.
As an example, Dr. Clair Patterson was a geochemist who made the first accurate determination of the age of the earth by making extraordinarily sensitive measurements of lead isotopes in minerals. He was perpetually running into contamination problems in the lab, so he decided to track down the sources, which proved to be primarily leaded gasoline. He became the major figure in the fight to eliminate lead pollution.
Joe realized that multidisciplinary and diverse problems required a multidisciplinary and diverse intellectual culture to tackle them, in an era when "multidisciplinary" and "diverse" were barely notions. ARP reached out beyond the monolithic student body of Caltech to students from campuses around the country, who were invited to apply to work at ARP. Overwhelmingly, the ones ARP accepted were not white, male hard-science majors; Caltech had more than sufficient numbers of those.
ARP established social and institutional structures to encourage everybody to work together in a single large community. A few like-minded individuals might go off and research one particular specialized area, but they were always part of larger groups that they were constantly in contact with, both academically and socially. Despite the overarching agenda, there was a broad acceptance that different people work differently and tolerance for the few loners who just liked to hole up in their labs. Which they did during the work hours, but during the social times they were happy to be part of the larger community.
Joe spearheaded a novel managerial and economic structure to deal with this novel set of conditions. ARP was autonomous. It was not faculty-sponsored research. It was an entirely student-run research program. Students within the organization wrote grant proposals and applied for (and received!) national research grants. That had never been done before.
What happened to ARP? Well, after a handful of years it faded from the scene, but before then it produced a few enduring results. Most important was Caltech's Environmental Quality Laboratory. Now, just about every major research institution has one of those, but Caltech was the pioneer. ARP also did some important early work in computer modeling of atmospheric pollution reactions and they produced the first laboratory experiments that proved that sublethal levels of lead in the body could cause learning disabilities, an important discovery in the fight to get lead removed from gasoline and paint.
The second 100YSS conference appears to recapitulate many of the innovations I saw at ARP. As a certain pointy-eared Vulcan might opine, "Fascinating." Is the 100YSS Foundation on the right track? At this point I have no way of saying, but I've got one historical data point that says that they aren't necessarily on the wrong one.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
Ctein aims for a rate of one off-topic column per every four of his regular weekly columns, which appear on TOP on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
No featured comments yet—please check back soon!