Science Fantasy

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


Gawping at “science” evangelists has developed into one of my favorite pastimes. I use the scare quotes because, more often than not, the people who are celebrated as science evangelists (typically at places like Reddit) seem to be living out some kind of fantasy — one based more on wild flights of fancy than on what we traditionally think of as science.

Elon Musk, for instance, appears to have fashioned himself as a real-life Tony Stark, the billionaire inventor who is the alter-ego of Marvel’s Iron Man. (Or maybe Stark is based on Musk? It’s hard to tell sometimes.) From what I can tell, Musk made his fortune with PayPal, an internet money-transferring operation, and he cemented it through his involvement in Tesla Motors, an electric car company funded by a massive loan of taxpayer money. (Musk: he’s big on money transferring.) He’s also a mover and shaker in the realm of privately funded space shuttling, an industry that seems poised for growth now that NASA has shifted its focus to multiculturalism and climate change. Oh, and he talks a lot about traveling to Mars. No one can figure out what the point of going to Mars is. But, then, why not? If and when the time comes, Musk will presumably be there to transfer someone’s money all the way to the Red Planet.

Undoubtedly, Musk is a brilliant and ballsy guy. He’s also the kind of idiosyncratic tycoon that people root for. He excites the imagination. Certainly, I enjoy Musk and his brand of techno-adventuring a helluva lot more than Bill Gates and his dreary foundations.

Still, I can’t help but giggle at the seriousness with which many seem to take the guy. He’s widely seen as a symbol of enlightened courageousness. Take, for instance, this article’s calm proclamation that “with Elon Musk, nothing is impossible.” Let’s see, so far Musk has helped found PayPal, helped refine the electric car, and raised a lot of money for vague space adventures. Maybe I’m being overly jerky in my analysis, but none of these admittedly impressive achievements strikes me as being anything close to impossible.

To my way of seeing things Musk is a smart, ambitious dude who has found ways to make lots of dough while burnishing his image and cozying up to the Powers That Be. And now he’s using his money and influence to live out a nerd fantasy. More power to him. But why would I take his public gesticulations as anything more than entertainment?

Lately Musk and other science evangelists have been assuring us that computers will soon take over the world. There’s a sort of wishfulness to their warnings, a sense that they’d be more comfortable if things were run by robots rather than by, you know, people who shop at Walmart. This article even has physicist and television host Neil deGrasse Tyson predicting that our robot overlords will engineer a more docile race of humans. Presumably, computers being as smart and as rational as Tyson, they will inevitably breed the sort of people who watch “Nova.”

Like Musk, Tyson often seems to be inhabiting an image based on pop culture and fantasy. In his recent redo of the “Cosmos” series, Tyson pads across the deck of a CGI spacecraft as he calmly tells us about black holes, supernovas, and the dangers of anti-science bigotry. He doesn’t seem to realize how silly he looks. And it’s sometimes hard to tell whose footsteps he’s treading in, Carl Sagan’s or Captain Kirk’s.

As to the general idea of A.I. taking over . . . let’s just say I’m skeptical. It sure is fun to think about, and I don’t have a problem accepting Stephen Hawking’s opinion that it’s possible. But, ultimately, I can’t take it any more seriously than Musk’s fantasies of colonizing space. I’m no scientist, and I haven’t founded PayPal, so my opinion is probably invalid. Still, my guess is that robots taking over the world is about as likely from a 2015 perspective as the ideas in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” were in 1818. That is, not very.

To me, all this wild imagining looks an awful lot like what we used to call “science fiction.” And while there is, of course, a degree of science in science fiction, the “fiction” is there for a reason. I’d even argue that it’s the more important word in the term.

Look, I’m not trying to denigrate sci-fi. I love sci-fi. I’ve read most of Asimov’s “Foundation” novels. Their sciencyness is felt mostly in their tone and the way in which they present themselves — that is, as escapism for rational-minded dudes who are bad at sports. The storylines, which involve people zipping around the galaxy, conversing with humanoid robots, and controlling things with their minds, is pure fantasy. Asimov’s making Hari Seldon a mathematician doesn’t make the character’s ability to predict the future a whole lot more science-based than it was when the Greeks had Cassandra do it 3,000 years ago. Seldon’s (and Asimov’s) sciencyness is a trapping.

Someone will probably pop into the comments to inform me that, technically speaking, it is possible to predict the future using math — just like Hari Seldon! Maybe. But by the time Elon Musk builds the computers necessary to run the equations, the human race will likely have died out or been replaced by incredibly well-behaved animatronic versions of Neil deGrasse Tyson. In other words, don’t hold your breath, nerdlingers.

I mean, lots of things are possible, right? Given enough time donkeys might evolve sentience and cure AIDS.

Here’s what I find amusing: 40 years ago the people fawning over Musk and Tyson would’ve been wearing ill-fitting Star Trek shirts and going to sci-fi conventions to argue about dilithium crystals. Now they wear ironic facial hair and go to TED Talks to argue about worm holes and sustainability. I wasn’t expected to take the former activity seriously; the latter activity I’m almost required to take seriously. Why?


  • I see that Asimov’s “Foundation” series is one of Musk’s favorites. Paul Krugman is a big fan too. Says PK: “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” Wow, thanks for caring, bro!
  • Musk and others have banded together to form something called The Future of Life Institute, which sounds a bit like a more boring and self-important version of The Avengers. (Or does it sound more like Asimov’s Foundation?) I love how the Wikipedia page devoted to the organization cites Morgan Freeman and Alan Alda — who serve on the board of the Nerdvengers — as “science communicators.” Presumably, when the giant robots come, Alan Alda will be there to communicate them out of existence.
  • A skeptical review of the documentary “Particle Fever.”

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Computers, Science, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Science Fantasy

  1. Brannon Braga — former writer/producer for STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and VOYAGER — was one of the executive producers on the NDT COSMOS, so the Captain Kirk/Picard allusions were not coincidental.


  2. Can’t say I trust any land-based transportation that goes faster than the speed of sound:


  3. Anonymous says:

    I actually had the pleasure of meeting one of the cofounders of the Future of Life Institute at a meet up for concerned nerds in Boston. These people are nice, but very socially awkward.

    My hypothesis is that 90-95% of the elon musk space-x AI crowd are people who never grew up, trying to conceal their erections when someone brings up space or AI, but aren’t competent enough to solve any real problems (although no else is, either). These types seem to like wasting their time completing advanced PhD’s and learning lots of technical jargon, so that no one can call them out on the fact that the singularity is not near, human-like AI is not near, we haven’t been to the moon in over 50 years because we may not even be able to anymore, despite slick little iPhones with exponentially more computing power of the original space shuttle.

    Technological progress over the past decade has been polishing and improving the graphical interface of tech we already have.

    Despite 7 billion people and lots of universities, the per capita output of geniuses and great discoveries has been dropping, fast.

    If I were the one in charge I would set a date for terraforming mars…say 20 years, and keep firing people and hiring them until I had competent people that could get it done. Instead we have sclerotic bureaucracies and feelings talk and equality…which resembles a bunch of savages fighting over the scraps of a long dead civilization. “Planet of the Apes” is the name of our modern age.


  4. JV says:

    Is it the “rise of the nerd” that rubs you the wrong way? It only irks me because any time something interesting and somewhat rigorous seeps into mainstream culture, it gets quickly diluted and inundated with half-baked meatheads who grasp only the most obvious trappings and either miss or misinterpret the more interesting nuances. This is definitely happening (or has already happened) to nerd culture.

    I agree that scientism is annoying at best, but I don’t see Musk as part of that. He’s a science booster, for sure, but doesn’t seem to believe or claim that science has all the answers. I think his efforts in the energy and space exploration sectors will prove beneficial in the long run. What is it that bugs you about him? You write about how “NASA has shifted its focus to multiculturalism and climate change,” which makes it seem like you prefer the bold and ambitious NASA of the 50s and 60s. To my mind, Musk embodies that spirit. I don’t mind at all that Tesla has gotten government funding, I think Tesla is exactly the kind of company that the government should be helping. You ask, “why would I take his public gesticulations as anything more than entertainment?” I would answer, because he’s putting his ideas to practical use.

    As for Tyson, I’ve soured on him a bit, so I agree with you there.


  5. Faze says:

    You’re right that the connection between these “science” guys, some tech billionaires, and the general run of nerds and science fiction is not entirely wholesome. From the things they do or say, I’m not sure they really, really believe that science fiction is not true. They vastly overestimate the importance of space in the future of humanity.


  6. Faze says:

    Elon Musk’s reading list is not the list of someone who reads a lot. It’s more like “these are the only books I’ve read.”


  7. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Vanished Era Artifact Edition | Patriactionary

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