Elon Musk, Visioneer?

In 2013, shortly after The Visioneers came out, the publisher sent me on a short book tour. At talks I gave – from San Jose, Los Angeles, & Philadelphia to Seattle and Washington DC – the question I heard most from audiences was “Who is a visioneer today?” My answer was always “Elon Musk.”

This week, a new biography of Musk by tech journalist Ashlee Vance comes out. I’m looking forward very much to reading it. (With a subtitle of “…the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” how could I not?)

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.41.35 AM

In the meantime, I thought I would revisit that question that audiences asked me – is Musk a visioneer?

The title of my book is a portmanteau of visionary and engineer. The term “visioneer” refers to a person with a hybrid set of talents and interests – someone who has a robust and expansive view of the future; someone who also has the technical chops – usually bolstered by a degree in science or engineering; and, finally, someone who is eager to bring that vision to a wider audience (this could be the public, investors, policy makers).

I anchored my book around two such visioneers – physicist Gerard O’Neill and engineer K. Eric Drexler. O’Neill was famous for his promotion of space settlements in the 1970s. Drexler achieved notoriety for his advocacy in the 1980s and 1990s for a radical form of molecular engineering that he christened nanotechnology.

How does Musk’s background and interests compare? 

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 10.18.08 AM

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson for Businessweek

First, there’s the obvious – Musk is a celebrity…the living model for Tony Stark aka Ironman. O’Neill, on the other hand, is largely a footnote to history, except among space and tech buffs while Drexler is living in semi-anonymity in the U.K. after his nano-star rose and fell.

But all three shared a passion for space exploration. Drexler, for example, was a devotee of O’Neill’s ideas in the 1970s and his popular books on nanotech pitch molecular engineering as a path to the stars. Even though Musk’s fantastic successes with SpaceX seem to speak to more prosaic interests – launching people and things into orbit – the South African-born entrepreneur has been an outspoken champion of making humanity a multi-planet species with Mars as the target. As Musk himself quipped – “I’d like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.35.28 AM

Artist’s rendition of a Musk’ian craft landing on the Red Planet

Obviously, Musk was massively more successful at commercializing his visions – his success with PayPal provided the bankroll and business credibility to launch ventures like Tesla Motors and SpaceX. But O’Neill once started a tech company called Geostar – the goal was to provide satellite-based communication and location services. Think of a device that would allow you to know where you are and also to talk to people. What’s that? You have one? Hmmm. Well, O’Neill launched his company in 1983, when Steve Jobs was just dreaming – maybe – about the iPhone. O’Neill attracted investors such as physicist Luis Alvarez and Hewlett-Packard’s tech guru Barney Oliver. Geostar, with O’Neill’s guidance, raised millions of dollars and carried out ground tests until its founder’s diagnosis of leukemia in 1985 ended the effort.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.38.37 AM

Schematic of the Geostar system, c.1985

Controversy swirls around Musk today just as it did, in more limited fashion, with O’Neill and Drexler. Drexler’s vision for nanotechnology inspired many in the public as well as some scientists. Policy makers used – or even co-opted – the popularity of nanotechnology to develop a less expansive national R&D program. For Musk, much of the press concerns his personal life as much as it does his technological visions or his business activities. In 2012, for example, Musk made a much hyped and heralded announcement about his vision for a high-speed transport system called the Hyperloop.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.34.02 AM

Gerard O’Neill – who loved big engineering projects, especially those connected to trains and transportation – would have appreciated this idea. In the 1970s – with NASA funding – O’Neill spent a year at MIT working on his “mass driver” concept. This used electromagnetic force to propel objects at high speeds. Shortly before his death in 1992, O’Neill speculated about how this might be used as the basis for a train system. He called this VSE – short for velocity, silence, efficiency. Unrealized plans for high-speed trains and transport systems abound, of course. But it’s hard not to see slight shades of O’Neill’s visions in Musk’s techno-dreams.

However, when we start to think about how these visions of the technological future might be realized, things diverge. O’Neill’s vision for the “humanization of space”, as he phrased it, was tied to a NASA-based model. He was hard-pressed to realistically argue for space settlements without invoking some large Apollo-scale program. Drexler went in the opposite direction. Nanotechnology, he argued, was potentially too dangerous – remember “gray goo”!? – to be a government-developed technology and, moreover, this wouldn’t comport with the libertarian-rooted political views he had in the late 1980s. Musk has managed to split the difference – SpaceX and Tesla are private companies. yet, SpaceX’s biggest customer is NASA while those Tesla cars motor about on the public infrastructure and are charged on the public grid.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 7.34.23 AM

I can see a darker side, however, when comparing Elon Musk today with past visioneers like O’Neill and Drexler. It speaks to a broader issue endemic in today’s Silicon Valley ecosystem – all three of them were educated at elite Ivy League schools. More problematic –  all three are white men.

A question I often got on my book tour was “where are the women and people of color in your story?” This was always an uncomfortable moment for me – there weren’t many and I tried to explain why this was the case. The issue had to be confronted head-on but the answer was always unsatisfying, rooted not as it was in the history I had written but in larger systemic failures in society. In the end, I encouraged my audience to think about ways in which visioneers like Musk (or O’Neill and Drexler) were educated, encouraged, nurtured that resulted in others being left out. Rephrased – Is Musk’s success story a synecdoche for Silicon Valley’s corporate monoculture that slights women, blacks, Hispanics, et al.? 

I admire what Musk has accomplished in the technological realm. I’m stoked to read Vance’s biography to learn more (reviews I’ve read are positive). I’d like to think Musk stands as an inspiration for young engineers of all backgrounds to think about they might shape the technological future. And, of course, I wonder how he will be viewed as a historical figure 50 years from now. Largely forgotten? Like the tycoons – Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller – of the First Gilded Age?

Perhaps Musk will surprise us yet again and turn his visioneering skills to crafting not just a cooler technological future but a more robust and equitable social future as well.

Observing the Astronomical Sublime

Note – A few years ago, I was asked to review Elizabeth Kessler’s 2012 book Picturing the Cosmos: Hubble Space Telescope Images and the Astronomical Sublime. The review came out in a fairly obscure academic journal with far less exposure than Kessler’s fine book warrants. With the 25th anniversary of the launch of Hubble this week, I wanted to present the review to a wider audience and make a few additional observations.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.24.33 PM

One can quibble about the details but the facts stand for themselves – the Hubble Space Telescope is the most influential (and certainly most expensive) science facility in human history. Its influence can be measured not just the number of scientific papers it has produced but also in terms of the global reach the images from HST have and the ways in which they have taken root deeply into the popular imagination.

The ways in which these images come to us are the subject of Elizabeth Kessler’s wonderful book Picturing the Cosmos. I encourage anyone who is fascinated by Hubble’s photographs and their impact on the visual imagination over the last quarter-century to pick up a copy.

Just writing that – a quarter-century – stands out. There is a generation of scientists now who literally cannot remember a time when there was no Hubble Telescope. The ways in which Hubble’s data is used and re-used have shaped astronomical practice. Look at this graph:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.32.08 PM

This image alone makes it clear how Hubble has changed the ways in which astronomers do their science. Somewhere around 2003, the number of publications using data from the HST archive surpassed those produced from actual observations. The number has continued to climb. And, today, something like 40% of HST-related publications use only archived data.

In 1998, the Hubble Heritage Team was preparing to release a new image of the planetary nebula NGC 3132. Hubble Heritage images appear not just in research papers but on calendars, coffee mugs, and the walls of art galleries. This is partly why HST is so influential…they literally shape how many citizens and scientists around the world see the universe. When describing how a balance between aesthetic inclinations and scientific veracity was found for the NGC 3132 picture, one team member explained, “We tend to look for things that ‘look right.’ And what exactly looks right is maybe a little hard to quantify.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.38.24 PM

Look familiar?  NGC 3132; Source.

This quote come near the end of Kessler’s excellent and thought-provoking new book, captures a great deal of the tension inherent in making and viewing contemporary astronomical images. Such scientific images have an inherent aesthetic and artistic quality. As Kessler’s book reveals, they do all sorts of work besides “merely” conveying scientific information.

The “astronomical sublime” is central to Kessler’s analysis of Hubble images. Primarily focusing on the work of the Hubble Heritage Project, she expands on the sublime’s characteristics features (astonishment, the infinite, and even terror) and extends it beyond its origins with 18th century scholars like Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke. Contemporary Hubble images not only reflect qualities of the sublime but also resemble earlier traditions in western art. We can compare Hubble images to famous 19th century landscape paintings by artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.42.33 PM

Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory (1882)

The famous 1995 “Pillars of Creation” image – a view of the Eagle Nebula – has parallels to, for example, those the towering cloud and rock formations found in Romantic scenes of the American West.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.43.56 PM

These 19th century scenes of the American frontier once conveyed natural splendor to parlor-bound citizens. They also communicated the ideology of manifest destiny and the transformative power of the frontier as Frederick Jackson Turner famously noted. In similar fashion, images from Hubble reflect their own historical moment by stimulating public interest and continued funding for NASA’s continued exploration of the cosmic frontier. In the early 1990s, when the telescope’s initial spherical aberration threatened to undermine public and political support altogether, images from Hubble proved especially critical. They convinced scientists, politicians and tax payers that a hobbled Hubble could still produce good science and a repaired telescope even more so.

Kessler’s book blends the histories of art and astronomy with oral history interviews and observations of contemporary astronomers at work. She also engages with the work of other scholars who have considered the nature and use of astronomical images. The book, for example, finds common ground with Samuel Edgerton and Michael Lynch’s earlier work on digital image processing.1 Also critical are the ways in which astronomical images – especially the highly visible ones from the Hubble Heritage Project – perform functions besides those narrowly construed as “scientific.”

Look at this still from the 1990s show Star Trek Voyager what’s in the background? A Hubble image.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.49.55 PM

Years ago I interviewed NASA administrator Ed Weiler. At the time, NASA was defending the budget for the James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes, but erroneously – I think – billed as the successor to Hubble). One of the things we talked about was the popularity of Hubble and how this helped sell JWST to a skeptical Congress. Weiler remarked – and I’m paraphrasing – that if he wanted to know which Hubble images were popular, all he had to do was watch Voyager (or check out the calendars and coffee-table books packed with Hubble images.)

Kessler’s treatment of HST images is far from naïve, however. Kessler explains how Hubble images are “doubly translated”, moving from object into digital data and then into image. This issue of conversion has long been an issue for astronomers. How a Hubble image is produced is as important as the image itself. Starting with proposal submission and moving to data collection, calibration, analysis, and presentation, we encounter persistent questions about the “objectivity” of scientific images. What constitutes a legitimate image when so much massaging and processing goes producing it? However, issues about authenticity existed long before the advent of digital images, starting when astronomical images were first captured via hand-made drawings and then recorded with photographic techniques.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 12.58.34 PM

A different kind of archive…the plate stacks at Harvard College Observatory. Source

At the same time, there is something profoundly different about digital images. New tools and standardized formats developed in the late 1970s and 1980s facilitated the circulation of digital data. Meanwhile,image processing technologies (derived from classified reconnaissance activities) gave scientists greater flexibility in using contrast, color, and cosmetics to interact with their data. Although positioned as “rational” depictions of the cosmos, Hubble images reflect aesthetic and personal choices consciously made by scientists as well as the technological legacy of the Cold War. If these ideas and images intrigue you, check out Kessler’s excellent book.

  1. Michael Lynch and Samuel  Y. Edgerton, “Aesthetics and Digital Image Processing: Representational Craft in Contemporary Astronomy,” in Picturing Power: Visual Depiction and Social Relations, ed. Gordon Fyfe and John Law (London: Routledge, 1988), 186. []

Conversion Experiences

Saul, so we’re told, had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Astronomers had theirs in labs and machine shops starting in the 1960s.

By this, I mean that astronomers developed tools and instruments to convert traditional photographs – made of glass and emulsion – to digital zeros and ones. This began a process that would completely reshape how astronomers work. Once data was in a digital format it could move about more easily. Astronomers could work across wavelengths and share data they collected with different telescopes. To borrow a fashionable word from history, astronomy could become more transnational as data circulated not only across desktops but across national borders.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.37.39 PM

Image from typical astronomical photograph, as negative. Stars are sharp and galaxies are fuzzy.

But first it had to be digital. One of the most innovative tools for taking astronomical photographs and converting them to digital format originated in the mid-1960s with a graduate student at Cambridge University.

In 1970, Ed Kibblewhite was a 26 year-old just a few months away from filing his dissertation. Like many in his professional cohort, Kibblewhite had moved into astronomy from another field; in this case, electrical engineering. In 1966, Kibblewhite proposed building an “automatic Schmidt reduction engine” for his dissertation.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 2.58.35 PM

Kibblewhite, 1977, examining a photographic plate the old-fashioned way – with a light box and magnifier.

As Kibblewhite’s proposal suggested, its prime application was analyzing images taken at Schmidt telescopes, instruments whose optics are designed to take in much wider fields of view compared with traditional reflecting telescopes. To understand the data challenge posed by these large-scale survey telescopes, consider their output. The photograph itself is a negative; bright objects like nearby stars show as dark black spots while galaxies are fainter and fuzzier. A typical exposure recorded might contain as many as one million astronomical objects.

Kibblewhite’s graduate advisor approved his plan and, for the next five years, he designed and built what eventually became the Automated Photographic Measuring facility (or APM).

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.02.24 PM

View of the APM, late in its life. Source.

He estimated the initial cost at just under £33,000, a considerable sum in the late 1960s (and close to $800,000 in 2014…a substantial sum then and now). In developing his design, Kibblewhite looked to previous machines as something to improve upon. For example, astronomers had routinely built and used “measuring engines” since the 1950s. These instruments scanned photographs and electronically recorded their information such as the coordinates of stars and galaxies. Commercial firms like PerkinElmer eventually made “microphotometers” that allowed researchers to manually map the location of a star or galaxy on a photographic plate, measure its optical density, and convert it the signal into a value of the object’s actual brightness.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.28.27 PM

Microphotometer from 1970s; made by Boller and Chivens. Source.

Kibblewhite decided to use a very bright laser beam as a light source for his APM. When rapidly moved, the scanner could process an entire Schmidt plate with a million or so separate objects about a hundred times faster and do so automatically.

For the actual image analysis, Kibblewhite received assistance from an unexpected source. In 1967, he met James Tucker, a cancer researcher at Cambridge’s Pathology Department, who was developing software to process images of cell nuclei. The ability to subtract the background as well as delineate the edges of “fuzzy” objects – cell nuclei or galaxies – was essential for both researchers and, when stained black, biological cells “looked just like star images.” Kibblewhite’s machine adopted a variation of Tucker’s program for the APM. Data from it – object’s position, total brightness, and distribution of brightness across it – passed through a series of computers before being stored on magnetic tape.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.38.17 PM

APM diagram

Kibblewhite continued to refine and improve the APM for years after its 1970 debut; a good description is in this 1981 paper. He described the machine as a “national facility” available to “astronomers from all over the world” who wanted to convert and analyze their photographic data. Scientists would come to Cambridge with their own astronomical photographs, and once the conversion was done – it took about 7 hours to convert a typical plate into about two billion digital pixels – the astronomer could then “walk away with his data and start working out what it all means.”

Old rules of sharing and ownership still prevailed as converted data belonged to the individual scientist rather than going to a common repository for later use by another person. But these rules were gradually dissolving as data became digital. Besides fostering increased need for collaboration and an expanded professional skill set, the digital nature of astronomical data raised an increasingly important issue.

As opposed to the physical artifacts that characterized the photographic era, once data was digital, it became more movable. Data could circulate. And data that was easier to circulate had the potential to disrupt longstanding community traditions and norms about ownership and access. Friction that stood in the way of sharing and collaboration was oiled and smoothed. But first one had to be able to share the data. Conversion was a critical first step in the process.