“Sir, That’s Not A Footprint…”

July 16-24 marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission. This reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with my colleague Roger Malina. It led to this jointly authored post.

What do you see here? Look closely…

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This image was made 20 July 1969 by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin via a 60mm lens and a Hasselblad camera. NASA’s official records identify this as Image ID number AS11-40-5878 and its caption reads: “Astronaut footprint on the Moon.” Here are some more prints

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But NASA’s label isn’t telling the whole story. We can also see this iconic image as something else. And this gestalt switch in perspective helps us better understand the history of Apollo, the history of space exploration, and its future.

A word first about Roger: “My culture is space culture. My father, Frank Malina, was a rocket and astronautics pioneer. In the 1940s, he helped start the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as a rocket company.”

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Frank J. Malina built rockets. Here’s one of them, a WAC Corporal, c. 1945.

“Yuri Gagarin visited our house as did Werner von Braun. I have worked as an astrophysicist and led a team that built a space telescope for NASA. But I have also worked for decades as the editor of the arts journal Leonardo, which my father started in 1968. I deeply believe that space exploration is a cultural activity and is desirable as part of the future of our species.”

Back to the Apollo photograph and the big switch that occurred…

Roger recalls: “In 2007, I went to Bangalore where we had organized a “Space and Culture” workshop. I was one of the keynote speakers and I gave an enthusiastic talk advocating the work of artists involved in space exploration. At some point, I showed the famous Apollo “footprint” photo. I began to wax eloquent about this iconic photograph and compared it to the drawings in prehistoric caves, Galileo’s drawings of mountains on the moon, or the paintings by Leonardo during the Renaissance.”

As I paused for breath, a student in the back of the room raised their hand. I asked for the question. She said quietly: “But sir, that’s not a foot print it’s a boot print.” The whole room held their breath in sudden agreement and, just like that, the whole foundation of my talk shifted.

She was right. No one could deny that this was a boot print not a foot print. But does it matter? Footprint, boot print. Isn’t that just a matter of semantics? No. But why have we almost always described it as a foot print when it’s so obviously NOT?

A profound shift in thinking comes when we decide how we choose to see this. And the difference is more than symbolic. Apollo 11 occurred in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The idea of boots – boots on the ground – meant a good deal at the time, especially to citizens of Southeast Asia.

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Boots on the ground, 1969.

One need not deploy much post-colonial analysis to uncover the US’s desire to open up the space “frontier” as part of its manifest destiny. Boots led the way westward in the 19th century…similar boots made prints on the Moon.

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Boots on the ground, 1872. William Gast’s American Progress.

Probing more deeply makes us ask whether humans are meant for outer space. We will never be able to walk barefoot on the moon, because the process of human evolution made us fundamentally ill adapted to the conditions beyond the earth. The moon is not just further than the frontier of the earth, it is someplace elsewhere entirely. It is a foreign, hostile place. To go there, you need boots, literally and figuratively. And the deep debates about the future exploration of outer space – people or robots? – are enmeshed in the dialectic of the footprint versus the boot print. There will never be footprints elsewhere in the solar system except on Earth.

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No boot prints here…yet.

The trip to Bangalore was a trigger moment for Roger. As he notes, “that simple observation has de-stabilized me ever since, and made me more self-critical and self-aware about the space culture I am helping to build and am part of, and its heritage from the space faring nations that have started the space age, and the new ones now participating.”

As we think about the history of Apollo as well as the future of space exploration, we should remember that student in Bangalore who saw something quite different in one of the 20th century’s most famous pictures. What space culture will we build for the future? And what will we do to make more footprints here on earth and fewer bootprints?

Big Science, Bigger Data

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To most people – fans of Heinz ketchup notwithstanding – the number “57″ may not mean much. But it has some import this week for the history of science. July 1 marked the 57th anniversary of the start of the International Geophysical Year in 1957.

The IGY was the most ambitious international science project of the twentieth century. Between July 1957 and December 1958, tens of thousands of professional scientists from sixty-seven nations manned hundreds of stations around the globe and researched topics in geodesy and geophysics, atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and other fields.

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Although Haiti was a very minor player in the IGY, the international scientific project was remembered by this stamp.

Major achievements of the IGY include the detection of the Van Allen radiation belts around the earth, further exploration of Antarctica, and confirmation of a worldwide system of underwater mountains and ridges that helped further scientists’ understanding of plate tectonics. Most stunning of all was the appearance of the first artificial satellites beginning with the 4 October 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.

The IGY also inspired a nice jazzy number by Steely Dan member Donald Fagen whose song depicted an optimistic view of the future – solar cities and fast travel “undersea by rail…New York to Paris”. I’m hard pressed to think of any other Big Science project – other than Laurie Anderson’s eponymous number – commemorated likewise in a pop song. Anyway…

While Big Science efforts often inspire hyperbolic statements boasting the “biggest this” or the “costliest that,” scientists and journalists were on the mark when they labeled the IGY a “symphony of science” and the “greatest exploratory effort of modern times.”

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One of several beautiful promotional posters for the IGY that appeared in a booklet prepared by the National Academy of Sciences.

Oceanographic survey ships, polar research camps, high mountain observatories, backyards, and high school rooftops served as field stations and research laboratories. The IGY’s cost was stunning as well. It cost some $2 billion (about $14 billion in today’s currency) with the U.S.’s share fully one quarter of this.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 9.33.58 AMWhat was also remarkable about the IGY was that it gave amateur scientists an opportunity to contribute data and observations along with their professional counterparts. Ham radio operators, meteor spotters, and weather observers participated in IGY-related activities and stimulated interest among ordinary citizens to explore science’s seemingly endless frontier. War-surplus equipment, commercially-available science kits, and a knack for constructing their own equipment enabled amateurs’ pursuits. The community of amateur scientists blossomed during the heyday of the IGY.

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Moonwatchers at work

The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory organized Operation Moonwatch in 1956 as part of the IGY. Its initial goal was to enlist the aid of amateur astronomers and other citizens who would help “real” scientists spot satellites. However, until professionally-manned stations came on-line in 1958, this network of amateur scientists and other interested citizens played a critical role in providing crucial tracking information regarding the world’s first satellites.

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The IGY’s Big Science produced a whopping amount of what today would be called Big Data. Nightly observations from Moonwatchers were just one rivulet contributing to the river of data that flowed to one of several World Data Centers created just for the IGY. Several of these centers were set up to receive only a certain type of data. Information about geomagnetism went to Denmark and Japan while glaciology info went to the United Kingdom, for instance. Only the United States and the USSR received the full run of IGY data. Because the IGY was conceived as a global project aimed at synoptic observations over 18 months, handling the flow of data posed a considerable test for project scientists.

Dealing with this Big Data was made more challenging because the IGY’s, nominally a civilian activity, also had military implications. Launching satellite-carrying rockets was just the most obvious manifestation of this. Polar exploration, upper atmospheric studies, oceanographic circulation – all of this data could potentially benefit Cold Warriors in the US and Soviet Union.

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British-American survey of the Atlantic. Each dot represents a point where data were collected on ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen content, and dissolved chemicals. (Source)

This dual-use data raised questions about its circulation. Elementary data was, according to one IGY leader in the U.S, “the building blocks of scientific progress” but its end use might have national security implications.

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Note submarine prowling along…

Moreover, there were contentious issues around the sharing of data. At one point, Soviet scientists boasted to the USSR’s Central Committee that they were receiving far more IGY information from the West than they were sending back. During the IGY, data became a particular form of currency,with its own exchange rate, among researchers.

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Looking beyond the national security state, data regimes established during the IGY had a long life. A recent article by Elena Aronova, Karen Baker, and Naomi Oreskes connects the Big Data practices of the IGY with later efforts such as the International Biological Program, a decade-long initiative that was seen by advocates as a way of bringing Big Science-style research to ecology. The IBP’s success was limited but it paved the way for today’s Long-Term Ecological Research program used by ecologists today. As Aronova & company note, Big Data collection – typically associated with fields like physics – also “achieved legitimacy” in other areas like biology during the IGY and became an accepted way of doing research.

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Japanese postage stamp commemorating the IGY

Today, Big Data is hailed, hyped, and hated. The practice among small social media companies and giants like Amazon can be summarized as “monitor, manage, and monetize.” For scientists, Big Data is a nebulous term used to describe the creation of massive data archives which are then searched in anticipation of finding new patterns and relationships.

But an overabundance of data, in fact, has long presented scientific communities with tremendous challenges. Where once scientists complained that they did not have enough data, it’s now routine for them to worry about it drowning them. One major headwater for the today’s data surge (or, flood, deluge, pick your metaphor) of scientific data started to flow 57 years ago.

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Examples of the many IGY books that came out c. 1957-58



Giving Away the Future?

Every so often, I invite a colleague to contribute to Leaping Robot. Today, I’m pleased to introduce Shobita Parthasarathy. Shobita is an associate professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and her research addresses, among other topics, the politics of the patent system. As you’ll see, she offers some timely input on some news that created big waves in the tech community last week…

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Speeding to the future…a Tesla roadster cruising past a wind farm in southern California (Sources: Wikipedia)

Last week, entrepreneur Elon Musk announced that his electric vehicle company would no longer enforce its patents. Musk’s news – posted on the Tesla Motor’s blog – had nerd geek appeal. It’s title “All Our Patents Are Belong to You” may have raised confusion for some but it was a play on a classic gamer geek phrase.

Almost immediately, both traditional and social media went wild with breathless excitement. (A good review is here.) Many hailed Musk as a savior, willing to risk his own profits in order to accelerate a clean energy future and fight climate change. Others appointed him as the new leader in the open source movement, which believes that better technologies will result from a more collaborative innovation culture that includes sharing intellectual property.

Musk himself explained the company’s strategy thus: “Technology leadership is not defined by patents.” He argued further, “When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors….”

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One of the Internet memes generated after Musk’s news…

What is most extraordinary about Musk’s statement, and the public discussion that has followed it, is its demonstration of both deep public interest in and growing skepticism of the patent system. For most of its two-century history, policymakers, innovators, and citizens have trusted that the patent system “worked”: the highly technical experts that populated it could determine effectively—in an objective manner—which technologies deserved exclusive commercialization rights. And they have believed that the promise of these rights would stimulate innovation. This would not only serve the public interest in and of itself, but also lead to economic growth and social benefit.

But things have begun to change. Over the last few decades, as citizen engagement and activism in scientific, technological, and economic matters has grown, scrutiny of patent systems has also increased.  This has raised many critical questions:

  • Does the patent system really achieve the public interest?
  • And what should the public interest be in this context?
  • Should we be allowing patents on ethically problematic inventions?
  • What about patents on essential medicines which lead to increased prices in the midst of public health epidemics?
  • What responsibility does the patent system have over social, economic, and environmental problems?
  • And finally, does the patent system even work in terms of stimulating innovation?

In addition to garnering extensive media coverage, these concerns have led to lawsuits, protests at patent offices, Congressional interventions, and public advocacy campaigns.

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Apple and Samsung’s patent wars have been going on for years…who has benefitted?

Musk’s decision with Tesla Motors raises these questions yet again. It’s not yet clear that his approach will produce an outcome that maximizes the public interest. It could encourage more companies to participate in the emerging electric vehicle industry, but there is no evidence that Tesla’s patents have been the barrier until now. Rather, there has been ambivalence about investing in such an uncertain area, particularly given the infrastructural change needed. Given that, to the extent that this decision does inspire innovation, it seems likely that it will inspire an industry and infrastructure around Tesla’s technologies. In other words, Tesla’s approach to electric vehicles will become the dominant paradigm. Although this could be a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions, it also places enormous power in Tesla’s hands. Should we place that kind of power into the hands of one company, particularly in matters as important as climate change and our clean energy future? What if there might be better, cheaper, or more environmentally friendly approaches?

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Activists argued that gene patents hurt health care at the Supreme Court (courtesy of Breast Cancer Action)

But Musk’s decision does provide us with the opportunity to think about what kind of intellectual property and innovation systems might better achieve the public interest. First, rather than simply considering intellectual property as a narrow and esoteric area of law, we need to think explicitly about it in the context of innovation policy more generally. Intellectual property plays an important role in stimulating innovation and shaping markets. If citizens and governments want to stimulate and reward certain types of innovation and encourage certain kinds of markets, the patent system must play a role alongside research and regulatory policy domains.

Second, if we begin to rethink patents in policy, rather than legal, terms, then we also need to encourage government expertise in the critical assessment of not only the social, economic, and environmental implications of technologies, but also the implications of patents.

Third, we need to consider whether our one-size-fits-all approach to patents really makes sense. Scholars have long discussed the possibility of tailoring intellectual property protections to particular industries. But perhaps intellectual property protections should be different depending on the economic and social value of the proposed invention?

Regardless, if governments and their citizens want to stimulate innovation that is truly in the public’s interest, then we need to seriously reconsider the shape of our intellectual property systems. Simply abandoning patents might benefit Elon Musk, but the implications for the public are far more uncertain.