Rolling Up the Slopes of Everest in a Wheelchair

Neal Stephenson on recovering the majesty of science, and the possible role of science fiction in generating big ideas:

For those who don’t want to watch the video, Stephenson, as an example, calls for building a tower at least 20 kilometers tall, which is apparently possible to do with steel, even with today’s construction technology. There are a couple of things this would accomplish.

One, it’s big. So it would be a unifying beacon or a light shining in the darkness, similar to other scientific advances that people couldn’t argue with, such as the polio vaccine and the nuclear bomb. We would continue to make a name for ourselves.

Two, for a more practical reason, it takes far less energy (and therefore less money and resources) to break the atmosphere if you start at an altitude of 20 km. This makes space travel cheaper and more common.

This type of call to arms with the promise of glory is eerily familiar. Building a tower to the heavens? Making a name for ourselves?

And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:3)(ESV)

And we all know how that turned out. There is nothing new under the sun.

Before anyone accuses me of being intolerant of tall buildings or suffering from raging batophobia, let me say I have no problem with 20 kilometer tall building, or even a building 18.6 miles tall (to poke the metric system a bit). I even have some friends who live and work in tall buildings. So let’s build them. But I’d rather have reasons more interesting than the self glorification of man and the perpetuation of the species.

Also in the video, Stephenson laments the ground (his version of) science is losing, such as parents not vaccinating their kids and people denying the moon landing. How do we awaken wonder and respect again? This is a good question and a noble goal, but he’s turned left where he should have turned right. The way to awaken wonder is the same way it happened during the first scientific revolution: point to the supreme Artist and Engineer. We can’t race as fast as we can to utter meaninglessness and randomness, and then wonder why everyone is apathetic at the finish line.

I will bookend this by saying that I love Neal Stephenson as a writer. His books are inventive, funny, and thought-provoking and I will go ahead and say Anathem was the best science fiction book I’ve read in 10 years. From an entertainment and consumer standpoint, I have yet to be disappointed.

But…he is pretty much a secular humanist, which is like trying to roll up the slopes of Everest in a wheelchair, saddled with oxygen tanks that are empty. You probably don’t want to undertake the climb with such a person, or follow their advice when it comes to mountain climbing, just like you wouldn’t want to take fruit from a serpent.

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