October 14, 2014

Ada Lovelace and EXXXTREME SCIENCE

I wrote a fun guest post over at Brian Staveley’s blog about the rules I have for worldbuilding in spec fic. My favorite part is comparing the thematic narratives of the world of Middle Earth and the world of Adventure Time:

There needs to be an overarching narrative to a world’s story, because the world is a character just as much as the hero. Look at Middle Earth, from Tolkien, a world of lost paradise, of departed magic, of beauty fading from the world as it changes. Everything from the Ents to Galadriel to Minas Tirith reflects this sense of melancholy loss.

But now let’s look at the world of Adventure Time, a world that couldn’t seem more dissimilar. This works a little differently, as sometimes the show is more than willing to do something crazy for the sake of doing it, but the overall pervasive feeling of AT’s world is one of buried past trauma: the world is post-apocalyptic, with characters like the Ice King, Princess Bubblegum, and Marceline all featuring stories of tragedies and traumas that betray their whimsical appearances and demeanor. Even Jake the Dog has a weird, foreboding origin story now, and the Lich always lurks in the background, an avatar of death that threatens everything. This is a broken place that seems to have embraced sugarcoated glee for now as a response to its trauma – though episodes that glimpse in the future let us know this won’t last forever. One day, it suggests, the Lich might win.

In other news, today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrating the life of one of the first major figures in computer science history. Lovelace, of course, also happens to have been a woman, of which there is a regrettable dearth in current STEM fields. I think we’re missing out on what is likely some hugely beneficial innovation due to a workplace culture that’s consistently hostile to one half of the world population, and I admire Ada Lovelace Day as a symbol of a movement to counteract this trend.

However, I have some issues with the current popular discussion of science.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. I recall specifically wanting to be a chemist, and I believe I wanted to be this thing because of how scientists looked in popular culture: wild, cool, amazing people who could manipulate the very world and make the impossible possible. Science wasn’t just beneficial or exploratory, it was badass.

But as I got older, and looked closer at being a scientist, it suddenly stopped looking… well, quite so badass. When people started talking about nanomoles and picomoles and so on, and when our teachers described the amount of times we’d need to duplicate and record the output of our experiments, I realized something.

Science is hard, and doing anything in it takes a long time.

That’s not to say science isn’t amazing. It is! But it is probably one of the most difficult things you can do. Take engineering, for example: the first practical device to harness steam for mechanical purposes was invented in 1712, but it wasn’t until 1763 that James Watt took it a step forward, making the Industrial Revolution possible.

That’s a long gap, almost two lifetime’s worth back then, with a lot of failure in between. Part of it’s the era, sure – communication was slow – but there’s still a tremendous amount of trial and era and just plain old failure that went into this revolutionary development.

It wasn’t badass or extreme. It wasn’t gnarly or rad. It was hard work – and, very likely, mostly boring work.

But let’s skip to a recent scientific venture that has almost certainly failed.

About 10 years ago, cleantech and alternate fuel startups were the hot new commodity in Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley, of course, is a culture where anything is possible, where designs and creations can change the world within a matter of months or years. And one figure that strode out from the world of Silicon Valley and into the world of energy was Vinod Kholsa, who wanted to bring a Silicon Valley-style energy and attitude to the fusty old world of oil, mainly by getting venture capitalists to invest in a lot of ambitious biofuel startups. He was going to use Silicon Valley’s cool, sleek, dynamic perspective and use it to make oil cool.

As of the end of this month, it’s likely all of his ventures will have failed, and will have failed miserably. What went wrong? As energy veteran Robert Rapier records here:

Khosla glossed over the problems and made it sound easy as pie. He is accustomed to seeing technical challenges solved in Silicon Valley. Again, that’s primarily because these challenges are often relatively new. They are not like some of the challenges in the energy business, which have seen decades of work and billions of dollars spent on some of these approaches. The easy challenges were all solved long ago.

[…]Maybe Khosla finally appreciates that the reason ExxonMobil doesn’t make biofuels isn’t because it don’t know how, or because it just loves oil. It’s that ExxonMobil has found the economics lacking, and has continued to do what works economically. (As a former ConocoPhillips employee, I can assure you that oil companies conduct R&D on every manner of biofuel).

In essence, Khosla found out the hard way that science is fucking hard, especially in the oil industry, where some of the biggest companies to have ever existed are constantly looking into any feasibly economic revenue stream that they can, and have so far found that biofuels aren’t worth it. It’s possible that they might be mistaken, that someone could have come up with a brilliant new method – Ramez Naam recently pointed me in the direction of Joule Unlimited, which seems like a possible prospect in this area – but either way, this takes a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of work, and a lot of failure. Silicon Valley is still a new market, and Kholsa appears to be someone who tried to cross over into one of the oldest markets out there with extremely high expectations and got himself schooled, losing a ton of other people’s money in the process.

I wonder sometimes if the Silicon Valley culture has contributed to the current “punk rock” culture of science. Silicon Valley is a place that is solving totally brand new problems and solving them very quickly. The problems facing computing and the digital world are the first of their kind we’ve ever encountered in human history, where very few have done previous work, respectively speaking. To a certain degree, it’s easy to innovate in an empty space with totally new technology when no one’s ever tried to fix these problems, but it’s much harder to innovate when previous generations have mopped up the easy stuff and you’re stuck with the really hard questions.

It’s possible that this has given subscribers to that culture a certain arrogance and naivete. That probably harmed them about 10 years ago, when cleantech investment proved a lot harder than they thought. This was a region of science where they had to solve old problems that people had been working on for over a century, and it took longer and cost more than they likely anticipated. (Also having China completely dominate and the 2008 Recession certainly didn’t help.) Venture Capitalism is just now returning to science start-ups, but they don’t even mention the word “cleantech” anymore, even if that is what they’re investing in. Maybe it’s just the cycle of funding and hype, or maybe they got burned and learned.

But my concern is that the Silicon Valley culture of science and punk rock possibility has bled out. ‘Science” – the general idea of it – has its own culture online: just look at the Facebook page for “I fucking love science”, and now look at their reaction to a fairly harmless joke about Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Maybe it’s not Silicon Valley, or just Silicon Valley, as it is a watershed of movements: perhaps it’s the rise of the geek and nerd culture, empowered by online communities and social networking. Are people just using the idea of science to bolster the idea of themselves possessing a cool, superior intellect? Whatever the culprit, I’m now looking at tweets saying that Ada Lovelace was “the most punk rock of all programmers.” I’m seeing cartoons of her – this extraordinarily wealthy, Georgian aristocrat – dressed up like a mad scientist, mugging for the camera. And once again I’m reminded of young Robert, about 7 years old, imagining what it’d be like to be a chemist one day, aspiring to that same awesome, extreme vision of science.

I dropped science well into high school. I dropped it because it didn’t match up with my idea of science at all. It wasn’t awesome, amazing fun: it was tedious, and it involved painstaking work and a great deal of resilience. It wasn’t for the most bodacious of brains, it was for the stout of heart. It required an unexpected amount of devotion and a surprising willingness to sit in front a of a piece of paper and crunch numbers.

Which is, after all, probably what Ada Lovelace did all day. Just a person in a somewhat dark room with a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and a ton of books, for hours on end.

I wish I’d been more informed of what the reality was. If I’d know what it was and adjusted my expectations, I might have stayed. Chemistry is fascinating, and it is cool, but it takes a patient mindset that I wasn’t all prepared to have at that time.

I wish I’d stuck with it. But I didn’t. And I’m worried others might not, either.

We desperately need more scientists and engineers in America. We need to support them, grow their numbers, and convince them to stay here. We need them because we’re facing some tremendous challenges in the years ahead, and these challenges will take an exceptional amount of hard work, and will involve what is likely to be a stupefying amount of failure and frustration.

Whatever happens in the future, fixing our problems will not be cool, bodacious, extreme, or punk rock. And claiming that it will be is sending the prospective innovators of the future entirely the wrong message.