Tag Archives: public science

Speak up and write

Writing is a form of thinking, and today I want to think about Mount Everest and NASA. Many people were horrified recently to discover that there were crowded lines on the safety ropes to summit Mount Everest. (And we readers at home, looking at the photos and hearing the stories, were probably much less horrified even than the people on the mountain, people who’d worked hard to get there, who had paid a whole lot, and whose lives were at risk because of those lines.).

We should really spend only a small proportion of our time on the consumption of media, or at least we should devote a significant amount of our attention to production. So argues Clay A. Johnson’s The Information Diet.  I completely agree, and yet I haven’t usually kept the habit. Last summer, I even gave myself I pass. I said, “I’m not going to write anything.” And I didn’t. I still gardened, cooked, came up with a new syllabus for an old class. I probably wrote a poem or two, some journal entries, some letters. There was some production, yes. But why not, this summer, try to avoid snacking on inputs so I have time for the main course, my own writing? And some of that writing will be short, snack-like, while I decide what I should really be working on!

In The Guardian’s “In Focus” podcast, “Death, carnage and chaos: a climber on his recent ascent of Everest,” (3 Jun 2019), a climber describes how people at that altitude can’t think straight, how they are each barely able to survive on the oxygen they carry, and how vulnerable and injured climbers cannot expect to be cared for by the others. They are all stuck on the same safety line, but everyone is at the end of his rope. This has always been true on Everest, of course, but now inexperienced climbers, unfit climbers, plain old (or young) rich climbers, expect that their money can get them to the top. And the others cannot always help them. Money doesn’t matter there. Everest is still free of the unctuous servility that can be bought by the winners of the capitalist game. Put another way, to support our own civility and humanity, we have to remain at the altitudes that can support life.

Now (well, as early as just next year, 2020) NASA is thinking of charging 58 million dollars (plus $35,000/day) for a trip to the International Space Station (Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2019). But I can’t help thinking of Everest. If something goes wrong–if people have to survive by their wits and what they know of space, science, and technology (think The Martian), or if there’s just a simple shortage of oxygen (think Everest 2019)–then will the “guest” astronauts survive? Even people with the greatest human gift of compassion, free of the psychology of capitalism, will have to calculate that the survivors need to be able to, well, survive. Keeping the guests alive for another day will not solve the longer-term problem of getting the oxygen production back working, getting the ship’s communications up, getting the ship home to earth, or whatever else needs to get done. In short, sending amateurs to space is a lousy idea.

That’s my big idea for the day. I wrote it down. And here’s what I think it has to do with my new and broader conception of Writineering:

Engineering and scientists are sometimes reticent to speak up when the topic is not their area of expertise. I’ve asked ECE graduate students to read a bit on the climate crisis, for example, and then I’ve asked them to opine. They generally won’t. They think it’s out of their area. And yet, if anyone outside an Earth and Space Science Department can understand, evaluate, and appreciate the data, it’s another scientist or engineer. Becoming a specialist does not mean that you must voice no opinions on other topics. You are a citizen, a brainy one who asks important questions and knows how to go about answering many of them. Please, then, share your thoughts with the rest of us. We need you to weigh in!