Taking It To The People


A future spurned?

My favorite chapter in Gerard O’Neill’s 1977 book The High Frontier is actually the book’s appendix. Titled “Taking It To The People,” O’Neill described the difficulties (and eventual successes) he experienced when he tried to get attention from the public and his colleagues about his visioneering for space colonies.

I commented on this chapter of O’Neill’s book obliquely in an earlier post which was about the challenges of defending one’s radical ideas once they’ve entered general circulation. I was reminded again of O’Neill’s “public engagement” efforts after a couple of professional experiences I had recently. I’ll come back to these shortly…

After first striking out with Scientific American and then with The Atlantic Monthly, O’Neill tried to get his ideas before a wider audience via the journal Science, the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This too was a bust. One of the anonymous comments acknowledged that “frequently” it is the reviewer’s job to help sort out the “pros and cons for such” radical schemes.

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 2.17.34 PM

One of the referee letters O’Neill received in 1972

Whether space colonies were a practical idea was one issue; the peer-reviewer also questioned the “economic practicality” of O’Neill’s ideas. A second anonymous reader asked whether O’Neill has succeeded in reaching “beyond purely technical questions” so as to address “special and delicate human aspects” (emphasis in original). This is somewhat ironic because O’Neill imagined that settlements and manufacturing based in space might provide the energy and resources needed for an expanding human civilization while moving environmental degradation that industrial activities caused off-planet.

It’s interesting to juxtapose O’Neill’s focus with themes found in Matt Wisnioski’s new book Engineers for Change. Wisnioski sets much of his story at almost exactly the same time – c. 1970 – as O’Neill is starting to advocate his ideas for the “humanization of space.” Although O’Neill was trained as a high-energy physicist, he was very much at home among large scale engineering projects. Before getting hooked on space, he worked throughout the 1950s and 1960s on improving the design of particle accelerators. His personal concerns around 1970 reflect those of the engineers described in Wisnioski’s book.

At Princeton University, O’Neill was well-aware of prevailing skepticism toward science and technology among his students. Despite the successes of the space program, advances in computer technology, and the Green Revolution, campus attitudes, O’Neill recalled, reflected widespread “disenchantment with the sciences” and a “revulsion against authority and against technology.”1 Even the best students studying for science or engineering careers, O’Neill observed, seemed defensive, worried about being “accused by their colleagues of being irrelevant” or becoming cogs in the military-industrial complex.

But what is interesting is that both Science referees found themselves pulled, like others who would debate the concept throughout the 1970s, between technical feasibility and broader questions of politics, economics, and societal needs. Just because a space colony could be built didn’t mean that it should be built. In other words, O’Neill was critiqued less for his speculative engineering and more for failing to more adequately consider its social dimensions. The concerns of Science’s referees aligned with the general “social turn” that many scientists and engineers took as the war in Vietnam continued, debates about the military-industrial complex intensified, et al..

Reject letter from Science

No dice – a reject letter from Phil Abelson to O’Neill

Ultimately, Science rejected O’Neill’s manuscript. Two years later, Physics Today published a revised version of it but the experience taught O’Neill that “taking it to the people” wasn’t easy.

…which loops us back to my own experience. I’m in the midst of giving a series of public talks based on my Visioneers book. I’ve also been fortunate to have been asked to do some radio interviews and other media appearances. It’s been fun so far. For example, I recently gave a public talk at Caltech as part of the Skeptics Society’s ‘Distinguished Lecture Series.’ About 100 people took time from a beautiful sunny SoCal afternoon (and the NFL playoffs) to hear me talk in dark auditorium; several hundred more tuned in over the web.)

I was a little nervous because the Society is, well, skeptical. I thought they might take issue with the ideas actors in my book championed. This turned out not to be the case – they grokked that my book isn’t about adjudicating whether visioneers’ plans for the future were correct or wrong-headed. What concerns me more is how people like O’Neill conceived of and presented their ideas in response to the dire warnings in reports like Limits to Growth. What were their motives, hopes, and results? How did other technological communities react to their plans? How were these ideas brought to the public by journalists, science fiction writers, and popular culture?

The questions and comments people had for me after the talk (and subsequent dinner chat at Burger Continental, thanks to Michael Shermer) took a few new turns. One group wanted to know “who else was a visioneer?” This is a pretty standard question and it’s a fun one to kick around. I suggested that, according to my definition, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace might qualify, Nikola Tesla was a definite “yes” and so were Doug Engelbart and Elon Musk. (What we didn’t to was adequately discuss why there are so few women on the list. I bring this up in my book…but, I wish I had a more satisfying explanation other than to propose that this reflects the larger historical experiences of women in science and engineering careers. I’d be interested to hear from folks who might have more insights.)


Nikola Tesla – visioneer

One person insisted that Steve Jobs should make the list – I demurred with the proviso that perhaps the hybrid combo of Jobs+Woz had the right mix. (This person’s insistence reminded me of how visioneers, as I’ve presented them, worked hard to maintain a certain purity of their ideas…I had to work pretty hard to make the case that I wasn’t anti-Jobs but that I just didn’t see him having the necessary technical chops to fit the category as I’ve defined it).

But I what surprised me more than anything was the reaction from one person that I was being too hard on the visioneers by underestimating what they achieved. This was surprising because if anything, reaction from some of my history colleagues (those who don’t study science or technology) tends to trend in the opposite direction2

However, the best part of the Skeptics talk was talking with someone about what my story would look like outside the non-U.S. context. “Were there,” he asked, “similar pro=space visioneer types in, say, the Soviet Union?” This was a great question. I’ve always wished that I had the materials and evidence that might give me a sense of what similar sort of things were happening in other countries. Maybe this stuff is out there. My own experience working just in the U.S. context tells me getting access would be tough – I had to track down lots of my research materials not just in archives but in people’s basements and airport storage lockers. Doing this in the former Soviet Union or France just wasn’t possible. But it was a great question.

I’m giving several more talks in the next 6 weeks – Seattle, DC, Phoenix, and San Jose, so far. (This, combined with a full teaching schedule, means fewer Leaping Robot postings for awhile…) Somewhere along the way, I’ll come back to this topic of “taking it to the people” and see I can identify any larger patterns in terms of – apologies to Raymond Carver – what people talk about when they talk about the future.

  1. From p. 233 of Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1977 []
  2. This usually occurs while visiting the faculty mail room i.e. “Space colonies? We don’t have them…so, how is that important? And nanotechnology? What’s it done for us lately?” I don’t usually point out that their on-going yet surely definitive study of 19th century dust collecting is pretty esoteric too. []

Calling Governor Moonbeam?

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.30.03 PM

The recent news that California is slowly scratching its way back from the budgetary abyss the state was circling the past three years delighted me for at least two reasons. One is obvious – I work for the University of California which had the proverbial stuffing beaten out of it during the Great Recession. My other source of joy is more esoteric.

When the New York Times reported on Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown’s recent State of the State speech, it noted in passing that as Democrats “face pressure to increase spending, many are now describing Mr. Brown, long known as ‘Governor Moonbeam’ for his eccentricities, as the only adult in the room.”

As I describe at the end of The Visioneers, 1973 and 2013 are a lot closer than their four decades separation might suggest. A person who fell asleep in 1973 with The Limits to Growth on their lap and then woke up today would find today’s headlines eerily familiar. We have soaring oil prices, shortages of key minerals, and the birth of Spaceship Earth’s 7 billionth inhabitant. In response to dire expectations, so-called “doomsters” have suggested the need for restraints and restrictions, ideas which their “boomster” counterparts resist. More locally (for me) Jerry Brown is again/still leading the Golden State. And journalists are still tagging him with the “Moonbeam” label.

Why Moonbeam? Readers of Leaping Robot past a certain age will know that this moniker was bestowed on Brown by Chicago columnist Mike Royko in 1976. Royko was referring to the fact that Brown’s 70s-era political appeal was mainly to the “moonbeam vote” by which he meant the “young, idealistic, and nontraditional.” Royko, circa 1976, had no great fondness for California, once calling it the “world’s largest outdoor mental asylum.” A few years later, he expanded on this, with a description any naturalist would appreciate: “If it babbles and its eyeballs are glazed it probably comes from California.”

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.37.48 PM

Columnist Mike Royko, 1932-1997

Royko’s tag for Brown stuck and it certainly damaged the California governor when he ran for president in 1980. But he later regretted the effect his words had, calling “Moonbeam” an “idiotic, damn-fool, meaningless, throw-away line” and asked people to stop tarring Brown with it. “Enough of this ‘Moonbeam’ stuff,” Mr. Royko concluded in 1991, “I declare it null, void and deceased.”

But there is a little more to the Moonbeam story. Royko wasn’t just referring to Californians’ predisposition to perhaps being a little more free and easy going than Chicagoans. In the mid-1970s, Gov. Brown actually was quite spacey…

In 1977, Brown became quite interested in Gerard O’Neill’s ideas for an expanded human presence in space. Besides noticing the swell of public interest, Brown was also mindful that the aerospace companies (and technology-oriented firms, in general) were a mainstay of the California economy. Brown had recently asked former Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart to be his science advisor and he first met O’Neill at meetings facilitated by former Whole Earth Catalog publisher (and informal Brown advisor) Stewart Brand.

In August 1977, as the movie Star Wars sold out theaters nationwide, Brand, Schweickart, and O’Neill and some 1,100 invited guests from the aerospace and science communities met at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles for the first California Space Day. The event blended O’Neill’s techno-utopianism with presentations from major aerospace firms. Space Day’s motto, emblazoned behind the podium, was anti-limits, proclaiming “California in the Space Age: An Era of Possibilities.” A working model of O’Neill’s mass driver device, which would soon be featured in an episode of the PBS science show Nova, sat next to the podium. Timothy Leary, meanwhile, pushed his psychedelic version of O’Neill’s vision, saying, “Now there is nowhere left for smart Americans to go but out into high orbit. I love that phrase – high orbit…We were talking about high orbit long before the space program.”

Brown’s speech at Space Day abandoned his earlier ascetic language of limits and restricted opportunity which he had used at his 1975 inauguration.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.22.43 PM

Gov. “Moonbeam” Brown addressing the crowd at Space Day, August 1977.

“It is a world of limits but through respecting and reverencing the limits, endless possibilities emerge,” he said, “As for space colonies, it’s not a question of whether – only when and how.” The pro-space ideas Brown put forth were drawn straight from O’Neill’s vision – solar power beamed to earth via satellite, and space manufacturing facilities along with space settlements providing a “safety valve of unexplored frontiers” to accommodate the dreamers and rebels from the pro-space movement. Journalists, of course, noticed the gubernatorial shift in rhetorical direction and wondered if critics would “challenge what appears to be his recantation of Buddhist economics.” Outside, meanwhile, laid-off workers waved signs that said “Jobs on Earth, Not in Space.”

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.03.41 PM

Even after the klieg lights had been turned off at Space Day, Brown continued to push for a “California Space Program.” Brown, prompted by Schweickart, Brand, and O’Neill,  was interested in making space socially useful and economically relevant. For example, Brown imagined that satellite communications would facilitate teaching and the exchange of research information between University of California campuses.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.04.01 PM

Such a satellite could also foster better emergency communications – nice for a state regularly wracked by fires, mudslides, and riots. Another usage Brown imagined was a system of space-based environmentally monitoring stations. Brown’s interest in prosaic uses of space was a far cry from the utopian-tinged visions of O’Neill. But both men were interested in seeing space exploration expand into areas that might more directly benefit people earth-side and also make some steps towards ameliorating environmental problems. As Brown 1980 campaign slogan had it: “protect the earth, serve the people and explore the universe.” (I’d love to see someone run for office today with this!)

Not everyone agreed with this vision of the future. Many pundits and writers – Lewis Mumford, John Holt, Wendell Berry – attacked O’Neill, Brand, and Brown for championing more “mega-projects” that would help support the military-industrial complex. Others blasted their claims that the humanization of space offered any real solutions to the earth’s environmental problems.

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.26.50 PM

This debate was captured nicely in the opening pages of the 1977 book Space Coloniesthat Brand edited – one one page is a picture of a floating space colony. On the other page is a reproduction of a 19th century photo of a Native American couple – he says “Goodbye! Good luck!” while she grumbles “Good riddance!”

So far, in his second lap as California’s governor, Brown hasn’t put forth any spacey ideas. Perhaps he learned his lesson the first time. Or, more likely, space just isn’t the compelling technological frontier that it once was. Brown’s take?  “Moonbeam also stands for not being the insider,” said Mr. Brown. “But standing apart and marching to my own drummer. And I’ve done that.” I wonder what Mike Royko would say to all this…today’s Brown sure seems less Moonbeamy but also a lot less dreamy.

Let Us Prey

Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 8.52.23 AM

Crichton’s book hit bookshelves November 2002

Like so many academics, I sometimes have a hard time telling non-specialists what I do. My parents are classic examples of such folks. Usually, they seem content to tell their friends “Our son’s a history teacher” or “He’s a writer.” I’m OK with either.

But back in 2006, when I was helping start a center that looks at nanotechnology’s societal implications, my dad surprised me with “Nanotechnology? Oh that…” Given that polls and surveys show that a relatively small percentage of people had heard of nanotech, let alone know what it is, this was startling.1 And then I put it together – when my folks visited me in 2004, my dad, looking at my bookshelf for some pot-boiling fiction, must have instead grabbed my copy of Crichton’s novel Prey.

Crichton, of course, was one of the most successful fiction authors of the late 20th century. Before his death in 2008 (at age 66), he wrote such classics as The Andromeda Strain and Timeline and, especially, Jurassic Park. The latter went on to become a Hollywood franchise – the first film in the series grossed almost a billion dollars – the basis for several amusement park rides, and the inspiration for a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody. (When “Weird Al” targets you, you know you’ve made it).

Prey appeared just before Thanksgiving in 2002. With the 10th anniversary of its release just having passed, I thought I’d reflect on its place in nano-history. This seems especially important because, if my father is an accurate gauge, Prey was how a good many Americans first learned anything about nanotech.

When I asked my dad what he thought nanotech was, his answer was basically: “It’s those tiny machines that scientists are trying to build. We have to be careful because they might take over.” This is a pretty good summary of more than one of Crichton’s novels. The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, for example, all deal with rogue organisms of some sort (dinosaurs, alien microbes) generated/released by unscrupulous scientists/government agents. Seen in a positive light, they suggest the need to take a cautionary approach to novel technologies.

Prey takes a similar tack – an unscrupulous company called Xymos, operating out in the desert with secret military funding. Scientists at Xymos, including the protagonist’s wife, have developed the ability to make semi-sentient and autonomous nanobots. Coalescing into a predatory swarm, the nanobots attack and contaminate people until they are destroyed.

The ideas that animate Prey can be traced to the visioneering of nanotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. Starting in 1981 with a peer-reviewed article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Drexler vocally advocated a biologically-infused vision of what he initially called “molecular engineering.” Researchers’ ability in the future to design protein molecules could lead to the manufacturing of molecular-scale devices which, in turn, could make “second-generation machines” and the eventual “construction of devices and materials to complex atomic specifications.” Drexler insisted that what he called “exploratory engineering” was similar to John von Neumann’s work on the theoretical capabilities of computers c. 1950 or Konstantin Tsiolkovki’s design of rocket motors c. 1920.

With the publication of his 1986 book The Engines of Creation, he and his supporters regularly started using the n-word (i.e. nanotechnology). In Engines, Drexler famously suggested that out-of-control and self-replicating machines might pose a serious hazard – i.e. “grey goo”- that could, if not controlled, threaten the planet. Long on enthusiastic ideas but short on specific scientific details, Drexler’s books and articles offered an enthusiastic view of a technological future in which engineers had precise control over the material world.

Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 9.00.18 AM

“When the world ends, will you be covered in grey goo?”

By the early 1990s, technology-oriented magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired that catered strongly to the techno-cognoscenti provided positive coverage of the Drexlerian nano-future as did mainstream venues like Time, Fortune, and The Economist. However, the publicity and popularization of his ideas, compounded by the fact that Drexler wasn’t doing traditional lab research, made him a controversial figure. By the early 1990s, “the apostle of nanotechnology” had already become a lightning rod for praise and scorn from fellow scientists.”

Prey was, in essence, a fictionalized mélange of Drexler’s ideas. Crichton even provided his readers with an epigraph from Drexler, a short introduction to “artificial evolution in the 21st century” (it cited Drexler) and a multi-page bibliography that listed Drexler (twice). The book appeared on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2002.

HarperCollins timed its carefully choreographed release to coincide with the holiday weekend. Crichton appeared on network talk shows, gave a seven-city book tour, and wrote about nanotechnology for the Sunday supplement Parade that millions read. Rumors circulated, after it became a #1 bestseller, that Hollywood would turn Prey into a major motion-picture which, if Jurassic Park (Crichton’s earlier tale of escaped, marauding techno-creatures) gave any indication, tens of millions of people would see. Reviews of the book were positive – one reviewer for the Times called said it might be Crichton’s “most ambitious techno-thriller yet” that, despite some absurd plot twists, brought renewed attention to the Drexlerian conceit of “grey goo.”

Crichton’s book hit every button that might stoke public alarm about nanotechnology: a greedy, high-tech firm; lack of government regulation; new technologies turned into military applications. Reality reflected this last aspect all too well. In 2002, for example, MIT announced it would establish a $90 million Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. To some watchdog groups, the idea of nano-enhanced soldiers sounded quite ominous.

Moreover, Prey appeared in bookstores in the midst of larger furor over the implications of “emerging technologies” like nanotechnology, robotics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence. This started in 2000 when Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy broke ranks with fellow technologists and wrote an incendiary article titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Joy’s venue for publication – Wired magazine – was especially poignant given its cyber-libertarian ideology that deified markets and disparaged regulation. In January 2003, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC), an unwieldy name for a small Canadian organization, released a report called The Big Down. ETC had previously led campaigns against genetically modified foods. Not surprisingly, their report savaged the idea of nanotechnology. Even Prince Charles and Royal Astronomer Martin Rees got in on the act and warned of the existential threats new technologies like nanotech posed.2 Given the global panic after the 2002-2003 outbreak of “severe acute respiratory syndrome” (SARS) and the existential fears about terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, statements such as Rees’ guaranteed headlines.

The timing of all this negative press regarding nanotech was dreadful for scientists and policy makers in the U.S. and Europe who were trying to build support and maintain funding for various national nanotechnology initiatives. The U.S. effort had been launched in 2000 as a Clinton initiative and its advocates were trying to see its research agenda codified as a law under the new Bush administration.

In response, mainstream scientists and science managers took some of the wind out the storm that Joy, Crichton,  et al. had helped stoke by supporting the need for more research on the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. In late 2004, the National Science Foundation announced it wanted to start a Center for Nanotechnology in Society and, a year later, funding was given for two such centers: one at Arizona State and another at UC-Santa Barbara (disclosure: I helped write the proposal for the UCSB center and currently lead one of its three research groups).

It would be overstating the case to say that Prey catalyzed a national effort to look more closely at the implications of emerging technologies like nano. By the same token, it would be an exaggeration to say that researchers wouldn’t be studying nanotechnology were it not for Drexler’s advocacy…they still would be it might be called something else and it might exist as a less coordinated research agenda.

However, the historical record is clear on the fact that policy makers and some scientists were very concerned about the possible effects that Prey might have on public perceptions of nanotech. I can recall going to several nano and society meetings c. 2005-6 and a regular topic of conversation around the coffee table was what effects a cinematic version of Prey might have on public views of nanotech.3

My Google-based forays shows that Prey doesn’t seem likely to be arriving in theatres any time soon (although I found an amateur version on YouTube…5 minutes of my life I’ll never get back).4  Nonetheless, Prey already had two main impacts – one was giving the millions of people who bought the book some sense, albeit one that was highly distorted and hyperbolic, of what nanotechnology is. The other was, even if only indirectly, to help propel scholarship that considers the societal implications of a host of new technologies.

  1. A 2006 survey done on behalf of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars showed that about 70% of Americans had never heard of nanotech (42%) or had knew just a little (27%). []
  2. An example of a headline from spring 2003; this was from an Edinburgh weekly. []
  3. Interestingly, one study showed just the opposite! Prey actually made people think nanotech’s implications would be more positive for society, not less: Michael Cobb and Jane Macoubrie, “Public Perceptions About Nanotechnology: Risks, Benefits, and Trust,” Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 2004, 6, 4: 395-405. []
  4. One version has it that Crichton gave up on a movie version after seeing the 2003 Hollywood version of his book Timeline. The drubbing Crichton took from scientists after his book State of Fear (in which environmentalists and eco-terrorists are portrayed as a threat and global warming a hoax) came out in 2004. Crichton himself died in 2008. []