Sunday, October 19, 2008

Space and Science in the New Era

"Forgive me. I was wrong to despair."
--Legolas, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

A few days ago, I felt overwhelmed by, and decided to rant about, the larger forces threatening to erode our scientific and technical future (you know, because I have nothing better to do with my time). I was talking with a guy from my church this morning about these concerns when the answer just sort of fell out of my mouth:
"The only way this nation is going to be able to afford all of the things it's committed to doing (welfare, defense spending, etc.) is to be rich. Science and technology are what have made us rich. We need to continue spending on those things if we want to afford the future we want."

So, great. I have a theory. Now comes the hard part: what do I do with it?

Jerry Pournelle, in his 1976 book A Step Farther Out, calls this approach "survival with style." Survival is one thing--we can muddle along or conserve or reduce our lifestyles and survive, though the future won't be nearly as exciting--surviving with style means continuing to have progress, improving lifestyles, and ongoing advancement. There are plenty of technologies we haven't tried in earnest yet: ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), tidal power, space solar power, safer nuclear plants, helium-3 fusion, etc. If we're serious about having a better future, some or all of these should at least be attempted.

The whole point of scientific progress is that it must progress. And that progress requires a few basic conditions to continue:
  • Funding for research.
  • Free and open communications for sharing findings.
  • A stable political system capable of responding to changes.
  • Private property and intellectual property rights, to allow inventors to profit from their work.
  • A reasonably stable currency to ensure value.
  • Respect for, and equality under, an impartially administered rule of law.
  • Freedom of the press to ensure citizen audit of government actions.
  • Civilian control of the military.
  • Separation of the state from state-formed churches.
  • Social mobility and equality of opportunity.
  • Religious tolerance.
  • Safety, security, and peace.
  • Educated students capable of learning and advancing knowledge.
  • Representative government.
  • Non-confiscatory taxation.

The whole of these concepts represent some of the most important advances over 500 years of Western Civilization. How many of these basic concepts are now in serious danger? What can individuals do to maintain them? Whatever route one takes or what issue one chooses to support, there's plenty of work to go around.

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