Friday, July 23, 2021

Billionaires in Space, Part 5: Is nothing sacred? [What is an engineer mage?]

In my experience that question – Is nothing sacred? – is usually asked in a tone of exasperated irony by someone who, more likely than not, is a thoroughly secular person. I’m a secular person, but I ask the question without irony, which implies that I am also asking whether the category of “the sacred” is a meaningful one in a secular world. Nor am I exasperated, much. More curious, and pondering.

My friend the late Charles Cameron was a deeply religious man, a mystic, and a poet. He feared that, if travel to the moon became routine, that would rob the moon of its value as an attractor for contemplation of the sacred. In my recent article at 3 Quarks Daily I made a remark that points in that direction:

The fact that at long last America had landed on the moon, that changed the valence of the whole man-in-space project. As long as it was out there in the future we could treat it as a blank slate and write anything on it we wished. Now we had been there, three of us at least; it became real in a way it had not been before.

I then went on to mention an episode in The Crown, season 3, episode 7, “Moondust.”

Prince Philip had been feeling a bit depressed over the fact that he’d given up a career as an air force pilot to be, in effect, a jewel in his wife’s crown. The Apollo astronauts, however, were on a tour of Britain and he arranged to have a private meeting with them. It did not go as he’d hoped. They had not somehow become magical larger-than-life beings. They were mere men, like himself, and not particularly articulate about the experience of having landed on the moon.

What I didn’t say is that that episode began with Philip speaking to a cohort of priests who had come to a retreat at an otherwise unoccupied house on one of the royal estates. As they tell him why they’d come to the retreat he gets restless and tells them that they need action, not contemplation. He leaves. Then we have the incident with the astronauts. As the episode closes Philip has returned to the retreat, apologized to the priests, and asked for their help in working though is mid-life issues.

Charles saw the short blog post I did about that episode and remarked in comments:

Okay. If “religion” fails to offer the sense of mystery and wonder, and “science” in the form of going to the moon (dust, mainly, as if a reminder of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” unfortunately) doesn’t assuage the quest to “meaning” either, something we might term “imagination” or "spirituality" – perhaps falling somewhere between the two, or in triangulation with a meditative “peace”, might still do the trick. Anyway, that's the direction my own “quest” / “questioning” is leading me in...

Notice all the scare quotes and the trailing ellipses. THAT, I believe, is where we are, though just who “we” refers to is an open question, one perhaps best answered by each individual. But in the end we – some very substantial collective – are going to have to agree on some kind of answer and that answer will help guide us through the climate issues facing us and will guide us perhaps into outer space. To what end? That has yet to be determined.

...we need to be involved in and committed to something greater than ourselves.

I don’t think Richard Branson has anything useful to say in this conversation. He’s just a charismatic joy-riding billionaire. Bezos is less charismatic – the cowboy hat did not do the trick – and I doubt that he has much to say either, though he has a lot more money to spend.

And there is the peculiar shape of his rocket, which has been getting a fair amount of attention. I’ve already linked to Joe Rogan’s Instagram comment, which is rather crude, as one can expect from Rogan. But Rogan has the most watched pod-cast on the planet. Then there’s this video on YouTube:

It’s approaching a million views. That’s not Joe Rogan territory, but it’s worth thinking about. How many more views will it get? How many others are or will be satirizing the shape of that rocket.

When I first saw the shape I thought nothing of it. And when people started either hinting at or outright saying it’s a giant dick, I dismissed those remarks. Why? Because the shape of the rocket is largely dictated by physical considerations. It has to have the shape of a cylinder and the top needs to taper. Now I’m beginning to wonder. Does the capsule really need to be wider than the rocket itself in a way that resembles the glans of a human penis? Was that aerodynamically necessary? Didn’t any one in Blue Origin’s PR department point out that that shape could be embarrassing?

Aren’t these questions just a little silly? Maybe yes maybe no. The fact that they arise speaks to the lack of a shared cultural framework through which we can understand this current space race as anything more than billionaires showing off and living out childhood fantasies. Yes, there’s the tech and the possibilities of spin-offs. That’s what NASA said back in the 1960s. It was a thin truth then and it’s thin now. Technology isn’t what’s driving this race now – except, perhaps, in the case of Musk. But let’s finish up with Bezos first.

I don’t know what goes on in the mind of a billionaire who may think he’s some kind of god. I hear Bezos thinks we are or should be an interstellar species. So what? That’s been in science fiction for decades. He gets no credit for thinking such thoughts. Whatever he is, he is no philosopher king. Nor perhaps should he be. I could say more about Bezos – his predatory attitude toward his employees for example, but let’s just leave it there.

And then there’s Elon Musk. I’ve written so much about him I’ve made him a named topic here. As I remarked yesterday, “He’s built an actual [space] business, though one that depends on getting government contracts. He wants to go to Mars. I don’t know what I think about that.” He may well go down in history as the Henry Ford of the electric automobile. He has some strange ideas about direct brain-to-brain communication and apparently he’s not a very nice person. So what? He’s not a philosopher king either.

But he may be something else. A real life Tony Stark? To be honest, I’m not invested enough in the Marvel Universe to know whether or not that judgment is worth spit. But I rather doubt that the Marvel Universe can support what I have in mind, what I’m searching for, what Charles Cameron was searching for. Can Musk support that? 

He is an engineer. A designer. He may even be a profound engineer. A builder. Maybe he is an engineer mage.

We’ll see.

There is this idea, at one and the same time a cliché and a profound truth, that we need to be involved in and committed to something greater than ourselves. Does Richard Branson think there is anything greater than Richard Branson? Jeff Bezos? Does cheering them on lift us out of ourselves to something greater?


I’m not sure about Musk.

* * * * *

Why engineers? you ask. Because engineering is about designing and constructing. I have quite a bit to say about engineers and engineering here at New Savanna. In the preface to my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I characterized my method as speculative engineering. One of the important things about Grace Lindsay’s new book, Models of the Mind: How Physics, Engineering, and Mathematics Have Shaped Our Understanding of the Brain, is that she recognizes the importance of engineering. More personally, my father was an engineer, a very good one. It’s in my blood, as they say. 

Compared to science and scientists, engineers don't get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield might say. Engineering is not as deeply implanted in our philosophical superstructure as science is. Philosophy of science is a thriving subject. Philosophy of engineering? Doesn't exist. I suspect there is a class issue here, the gentleman scientist vs. the blue collar engineer, but also calculation vs. manipulation. There's an intellectual issue as well. This bears looking into.


  1. A Prayer in Part

    Now that we have ordered well may we turn back upon
    suffering; after the fixed moments and precision, to seek
    comfort in release. Peace being with us, may we flourish
    in our design and discover, peaceful, that we are not hu-
    man until we die; now that we have ordered all the rules
    may we seek out what rules us; when we have fixed all
    matter in a pattern, as who have emptied all problems
    into one and made science simple, may we break down;
    now that there is nothing not said or recorded and made
    use of may we give back the whole thing; since we are
    through thinking and all that is needed is to act, may we
    sit back; now that what remains is but to live, all means
    being available, may we drop them and go, go some-
    where that is not calling us, that is not in us, for which we have no earthly use at all."

    -- David Ignatow