The Day Science Died

On this website is documented my family’s aviation and yachting activities.  Coupled with our involvement in the deep foundation industry, the thing that ties all of this together is transportation: getting from one place to another.  Integral to that was the desire to advance the methods and technology by which we do things, both in and out of transportation.

I recently read a book I picked up entitled Space Frontier by Wernher von Braun.  It’s basically a series of articles he wrote for Popular Science from the early 1960’s until just before Apollo 11 in 1969, covering various aspects of the space program and accurately describing the moon mission that shortly took place.  von Braun was more than a rocket scientist: he was a visionary who saw us going to Mars in 1986, and had a good idea what it would take to accomplish this.

When I read this book, the first thing that came back to mind was the tight relationship between NASA’s civilian efforts and that of the military.  That was inevitable, not only  because most of the early astronauts were military pilots, but also because rocketry was very much a province of the military.  I wish I had read this book before or during my time in the aerospace industry; it would have given me context for my work.

But the other thing that came in reading this book was an ache–an ache for a time when we were literally reaching for the stars (or at least the moon.)  The passing of that time–something that basically lost its momentum after the moon shots and never quite got it back–is a point in history when something seriously died in this country, and that was a general commitment to the advancement of our state with science.

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South Florida and the western Bahamas, from Gemini 12, November 1966. It turned out to be an overview of most of our yachting adventures. One of the astronauts on Gemini 12, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, later became the second man to walk on the moon with Apollo 11, and was featured at the 2019 State of the Union address.

I loved the space program, especially after we moved to Palm Beach and we were down the coast from the Kennedy Space Centre.  Jack Kennedy, whose Palm Beach compound was not far from our house, had challenged a nation in shock over the Soviets’ early unmanned and manned (and womanned!) achievements to reach the moon by the end of the 1960’s.  The Gemini program, which transitioned us to the moon shots, was favourite television viewing.  (After Apollo 11, I went away to prep school, which hindered my ability to follow such things.)  I was aware of the technological spin-offs of the program, such as fuel cells, solar panels (mostly for satellites,) and many other things.

But by the time Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon, the mood had changed.  The 1960’s were a decidedly Luddite time; technology was blamed for despoiling the environment and creating the “few minutes to midnight” atmosphere of the Cold War.  Those who plied their trade in technology were “nerds.”  The space program collapsed and the aerospace industry went with it.  A new generation turned away from technology to more “relevant” (and easier way up) professions such as law and finance.  Instead of landing on Mars in 1986, we were in angst (something we’ve gotten good at) over the explosion of the Challenger.

Fortunately there were two revolutions going on.  It took some time (one wonders if pushing the space program would have speeded it up) but the revolution in computing power was changing the landscape.  Would the nerds get their revenge?  Well, sort of…but people whose training is in the sciences were still very much in the back seat of our society, in contrast to other parts of the world.

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It was quite a shock, therefore, when suddenly the spectre of climate change reared its ugly head in the late 1990’s.  It was (and is) characterised as “settled science,” not to be disputed.  Growing up in an era when that didn’t count for anything, one was tempted to ask, “so what’s the panic now?”  But the worst thing about the whole movement is not the problem statement (which can be successfully defended if done in a rational manner) but the solutions that aren’t allowed.  Instead of the obvious goal–producing energy in a manner that doesn’t produce carbon dioxide–we have been told that what we do must be “sustainable.”  This meant a combination of radical conservation (we’re back to Jimmy Carter’s sweater speech) and reliance on technologies such as wind and solar that aren’t quite ready for prime time (they might have been with help from space technology, but…)  The one source of energy that could have eliminated much of these emissions to start with is nuclear power, but this is another bête noire of the hippie dreamers and has been since the days they trashed the space program.

One thing that gets overlooked with science and technology is that the latter is the validation of how well we understand the former.  Evolutionists like to bandy about the billions of years different geological and biological periods lasted, and then use “belief” in evolution as a litmus test.  And, as an old earther, that time frame is fine with me.  But moving the marks of prehistory a billion years here, a billion years there (sounds like Everett Dirksen and the Federal budget!) really doesn’t change the state of things now.  It is what it is.  But applying science to technology and getting results is another matter altogether.  Raising the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a technological problem and should have a technological solution, be that solution the reduction in the carbon dioxide already there and/or reducing our emissions of same.

But that’s not what’s really being presented these days.  Solving problems isn’t something our social and political systems are really good at, not only because actual scientists and engineers are incidental to the process, but also because solving a problem means ending a movement, something the moment organisers are loathe to do.  We are trapped in a system where science is turned into a religion and problem solving subordinated to moral imperative, and the result is that we have neither solved our problems nor addressed our moral imperatives.

But that’s what happens when real science dies.  We struggle to advance some of our basic sciences (esp. physics) and wonder why things don’t move faster than they do.  Some of the problem is in the research system we have, as I mentioned in another context:

…the piecemeal nature of our research grant system and the organisational disconnect among between universities, contractors and owners incentivises tweaking existing technology and techniques rather than taking bolder, riskier steps with the possible consequence of a dead-end result and a disappointed grant source.

At this point we are too risk averse to take the bold steps we need to take.  Until that changes, and we engage with real science and real results, we will see the secular command of the planet pass to those who are prepared to take the risks and back them up with the science and technology to make them work.

7 thoughts on “The Day Science Died

  1. I wonder if there is not a parallel here with theology and “movements”. What is it that makes something true, credible, and worth listening to? How well do we do keeping the “facts” straight in the midst of highly emotional and culturally enmeshed realities in our own lives as Christians?

    C. S. Lewis says this in his chapter on the Trinity in Mere Christianity:

    ” . . . the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together . . . that is why all these people who turn up every few years with some patent simplified religion of their own as a substitute for the Christian tradition are really wasting their time . . . if Christianity was something we were making up, of course, we could make it easier. But it is NOT . . . anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

    If Science is a “movement killer” (I believe this to be well stated in the context of the article), would this not also be true of a grounded theological Christianity so often shaped by movements with some truth and their catastrophic over corrections due to emotional and control concerns versus a real and lasting truth based on the character of God and his ways? I think so.

    Of course, like science, if we choose our “movements” based on our personal disillusionment, personal hurts, personal life journeys, personal understandings, and personal applications for the basis of our “lasting truth”, how are we any different than those being criticized above with our own enlightenment addiction to our own individualistic interpretations of the facts, versus the reality that we only learn our lasting theology and truth in communities that are less than ideal. Engaging any lasting and transcendent truth is only worked out in this world in the context of communities (scientific or otherwise) who have little idea how to apply and live them out in everyday life. How we choose our communities and why we stay can tell us a lot about ourselves if it is truly the facts we want to find. But if it is other facts we want, we will always find those instead.

    I find the parallels striking, indeed.

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    • There is a lot to unpack here.
      Let’s start with Lewis’ phrase “…the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together…” Which community is this? Who gets to define it? It’s been a problem since the Greek and Latin churches had their parting of the ways. The Reformation only made matters more complicated, and things haven’t gotten any simpler since. We’ve had this discussion before.
      I think a more applicable analogy is the rise of Scholasticism in the High Middle Ages. We had the likes of Peter Lombard and the incomparable Thomas Aquinas develop a very logical and rigourous theology which upheld the essentials of the Catholic faith, a faith with “community continuity” going back to the start. Centuries later a revolution in mathematics would take place that was, at the start, inspired by the Scholastics.
      But people didn’t like it. Important people. The mystics didn’t like it. The Augustinians, who thought they had the last word from Hippo, didn’t like it. The “double truth” types didn’t like it, it was too integrated. Until the sixteenth century this was all within the bounds of the “community” of Roman Catholicism. But not forever.
      It’s not an accident (and Chesterton points this out) that an Augustinian ignited the Reformation. After the explosion the Jesuits didn’t like it. It wasn’t until the Nineteenth century, when a centralising church needed a rigourous theology, that Aquinas found the place he deserved in Catholic theology (albeit with significant variations, such as the Immaculate Conception.) But people still didn’t like it, and many of those were turned loose after Vatican II. We all know what happened then.
      Today we have the RCC with one of the “reverends peres jesuites” at its head, trying to turn things upside down. The #straightouttairondale and Trad types are stuck: the religion of authority is eating its own. For their part they are too bogged down in sacramentals to see their way clear to the essential truths.
      But that’s been a problem in the RCC for a long time. The problem isn’t that the church’s theology was bad (although it has problems) but that too many people within the “community” didn’t and don’t really believe it.
      The RCC has the best claim of continuity of them all, that’s one reason why I swam the Tiber. But if they don’t really believe their own stuff, what are the rest of us supposed to do?

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  2. clarification for paragraph 3: would this not also be true of a grounded theological Christianity IN RELATIONSHIP TO THE MANY MOVEMENTS THAT COME ALONG with some truth yet with catastrophic over corrections due to emotional and control concerns versus a real and lasting truth based on the character of God and his ways? I think so.

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