Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bugger-off Hippies ! - it was crewcutted NASA types what killed Modernity

    High Modernity was animated by a single generation of scientists,  children born after the invention of the Dynamo and who died before the invention of Disco: roughly after 1870 and before 1970.
   Alfred Newton (Newt) Richards, medical strong man of the famous wartime OSRD R&D outfit, whose dates (1876-1966) span the age almost perfectly, is an example of one such scientist who was influential when young and who continued to be highly influential up to the year he died.
   A lot of important scientific discoveries and technological inventions happened in the 1870s, but there were a few highly influential bloopers as well.

   None more infamous than what followed an announcement in 1877, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (yes his niece Elsa was later even better known than Giovanni - but for her high fashion clothing) thought he found water-filled canals across the face of Mars.
   Mars was a planet seen by most academic scientists as very much like Earth, albeit much more arid but with clearly visible polar caps.
   Proposals to build canals to move water and goods from the wet to the dry areas of Earth were the flavour of the month in the 1870s, so his idea took off in popular science, if not really in academic science.
  It fuelled a slew of fiction and quasi-popular quasi-factual popular science books/films/comics about life on Mars - the literal wet dreams of  High Modernity's cosmic cowboys.
  The idea wasn't firmly quashed for good until July 1965, when Mariner 4 beamed back some actual close up images of Mar's surface -showing it as dead as the Moon.
   Venus's clouds were pierced about the same time by NASA and its Russian counterpart, by flyby space probes, revealing a planet so harsh it made the Moon or Mars look benign by contrast.
   Only by contrast - nothing in our Solar System looked remotely attractive to human life.
    Now SF (Science Fiction) and the wild-eyed utopian end of academic science had to switch to PLAN B - interstellar travel to distant stars with Earth-like planets.
   Stars so far away we were basically imagining their planets to be Earth-like - if our visions of relatively nearby Mars were off base - the attractiveness of these new distant planets could be off by a factor of a million to one or more.
   In addition, Mars et al were at least reachable by our current technology - based upon upgraded technology and science from the late 19th century.
   But the speeds we'd need to obtain, to get to distant planets before the human cargo inside the tin cans died from cosmic radiation poisoning, was simply not in the pipeline yet, so here academic science had to lean hard on the ravings of hardcore SF in its  most Kool-Aid-drinking mode, to sustain the dream.
   (Insert here a big shout out to Freeman Dyson....)
   The original Skygod generation has sustained their vision of being above the Earth's woes by deluding themselves they could always start anew on a nearby human-friendly planet like Venus or Mars.
   NASA's crewcutted pipe-smoking set killed that dream, even before the hippies and students got going on Modernity, in May 1968.
   Ironic isn't it ???

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