Sunday, August 26, 2012

Vale Neil Armstrong

"I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer -- born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow." - Neil Armstrong

One of the reasons I personally take umbrage at the decline of the United States as a leader in science, engineering and just plain rational thought is that I am a child of the sixties, and like many of my generation I remember staying up late to watch those blurry black-and-white images as he descended the ladder and set foot on the moon; at that time America seemed to be a beacon, showing the world the way forward to a future in which science and technology would solve all our problems.

It didn't come to pass. Perhaps we were naive to think that way.

However, the moon landing inspired me to pursue a career in science and engineering, albeit in a very minor way. And eventually I learned to fly, too.

To me, the death of Neil Armstrong represents a punctuation mark in American history. He was a pilot and an engineer, what some call a "maker" - one of those who don't get distracted but knuckle down to solve problems, important problems, who put in long hours to master complex skills and who put their lives on the line, both in combat and in test flying. That kind of life and that set of values, I suspect, give you a very different view of what's important and what's not.

These days, our would-be-makers are giving us toys and straining to write an app as successful as Angry Birds (which I freely confess, I have never played). It all seems rather trivial, and that consumer technology has overtaken aerospace is demonstrated by NASA's plans to use Android smartphones as the computing power on a series of small satellites. Armstrong, Aldrin and Scott made it to the moon and back with less computing power than most people carry around in their pockets today.

Meanwhile, the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in the US brings us prospective leaders who don't understand enough basic science or even basic rationality to have any hope of addressing the key issues the world - or even just the US - faces today, such as anthropogenic global warming, public health issues, the biology and ethics of reproductive rights and a lot more.

I can only hope that some of those hoping to "lead the free world" will remember the emotions they felt when Neil Armstrong showed how America really led the world, and then realise that their current approach isn't working. But I expect to be disappointed.

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