Solve for X: Neal Stephenson on getting big stuff done

Uploaded by wesolveforx on 02.02.2012


NEAL STEPHENSON: If the rocket blows up, we're all dead.
I think that's a fine tag line and kind of motto that we can
use for this entire conference.

I've printed out some remarks here in what turns out to be
three point Helvetica, so I'm going to wear my glasses, so
that I can see what I wrote.

So a year ago, I attended a conference called Future Tense
in DC, that was apparently sponsored or something at
least in part by Google.
And it was at the Google DC offices.
And I used it as a pretext to complain about our society's
inability to execute on big stuff.
To get big stuff done.
In the first 2/3 of the 20th century, we went from not
believing that heavier than air flight was possible to
walking on the moon.
So if you took a person off the street in 1900 and put
them in a time machine and sent them forward to 1968, and
let them look around, and then sent them home again to tell
the story of what they'd seen, they wouldn't even really have
the conceptual or the verbal vocabulary to say
what they had seen.

You can't talk about nuclear power until you've explained
the fact that atoms have nuclei.
You can't talk about the conversion of matter into
energy without talking about
relativity and quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, if you were to take a person from off the
street in the year 1968, and send them forward our time,
and do the same experiment, the results
would be very different.
They would say, well, the cars look different.
They look at least as different from our cars as our
cars look from like 1940s cars.
Everyone's got these things that are sort of like cross
between Captain Kirk's communicator and Dick Tracy's

And there's some other stuff that's cool.
There's this internet thing.
Typewriters have been replaced by these TV devices.

If you look up in the sky, you see 737s and 747s flying
overhead just like we have, except in some ways, they've
gone backwards because they don't have SSTs.
And there's no sign that they're going to get them back
anytime soon.

Human space travel is a lost art.
We 1968 people can send people to the moon
and bring them back.
They can't send humans into lower orbit.
They have to hitch rides off of the Russians.

Diseases that we can easily treat with antibiotics have
become intractable and are making a come back.
And even diseases that can easily be snuffed out by
vaccines are coming back, simply because parents aren't
getting their kids vaccinated because they don't believe in
science anymore.

So to be fair, I think there's a partial explanation for all
of this in the rise of the personal computer and of the
internet, which has siphoned off a huge fraction of our
inventive energies to work on forms of progress that aren't
as obvious as space rockets and nuclear bombs.
I saw the best minds of my generation
writing spam filters.
NEAL STEPHENSON: But if you look at where we went from
1900 to 1968, and where we've been from then to now, it
seems as though at about that time--
I won't pick a specific year, but somewhere around then--
we kind of slammed into a brick wall as far as big
innovations in what our physical built environment
looks like.
I think that this is partly due to a kind of allergic
reaction that we had simply to the sheer amount of change
that had occurred.
And in particular to some of the environmental side effects
that had been blithely ignored up to that point.
So I get that.
I was certainly raised to be an environmentalist, and all
of my knee jerk reactions are kind of in tune with those of
the environmental movement.
But Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima kind of converted me
to the view that the threat now has become not too much
innovation, but not enough innovation.
The reactors that melted down at Fukushima were built in the
early 1970s based on designs from the 1960s.
So if you look under the hood of a 1960s automobile, if you
can even find one that's still running, and you compare it to
what you see under the hood of a modern vehicle, it has to
send a little chill down your spine to think that nuclear
reactors designed in that same era are still hot today.

It's not my purpose to single out the
environmental movement.
But that does embody a certain mentality about risk that has
become so tied up in intellectual knots that it has
the net long-term effect of making things more risky.
It's my thesis that a small number of people have to be
willing to shoulder greater risks in order to create
changes that eventually reduce risk for
civilization as a whole.
And that when they stop fulfilling that
responsibility, a decline sets in that may require some
conscious effort to reverse.
It shows up most conspicuously in public attitudes towards
science and technology.
American culture from the very beginning has had a very
powerful anti-elite, anti-intellectual strain.
It's been well covered in books like
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Hofstadter
and a more recent book called--

I can't remember the name of it.
It's by Susan Jacoby.
But it's about the decline of American rationalism.
It came out a couple years ago.
Anyway, people who espouse that kind of mentality are
markedly aggressive.
And they are relentless.
They never stop working to further their goals.
To the extent that they tolerate progress at all, it's
on a 'what have you done for me lately' sort of basis.
So through the first part of the 20th century, we were able
to keep them off balance with spectacular advances that
couldn't really be argued with.
Here's an airplane.
Argue with that.
I just saved your kid's life with penicillin.
Argue with that.
Here's a mushroom cloud.
Polio vaccine.
A guy walking around on the moon.
Argue with those.
But when those inarguable triumphs stop coming, the
anti-science people come back and begin making inroads to a
degree that educated people can't even comprehend, for
example, by denying that the moon landings ever happened.
So it's entirely plausible that 100 years from now, it
may be believed by 99% of all the people in the world that
the moon landings were a hoax.
And the idea that they actually happened may have the
status of a totally
marginalized conspiracy theory.
That is a totally achievable result.
And there are people who are actively working to make that
kind of thing happen.

There's an old saying that when you have a hammer,
everything looks like a nail.
So my hammer happens to be the ability to
write science fiction.
And so, I've been looking for ways to use it to hammer down
this troublesome nail that I've just been describing.

One of the ideas that emerged from that Future Tense
conference a year ago was that of producing some new science
fiction stories that were aimed at describing future
alternative societies in which big things had gotten done.
Which is a thing that science fiction hasn't
been doing for a while.
I mean, this is all fine.

During about the same time that we kind of stopped
innovating on a big scale, at least in the physical world,
science fiction has become sort of inward looking,
postmodern, introspective, focused more on social stuff.
It's a good and healthy thing to have done.
But in the current climate, it seems like kind of a strange
and radical innovative idea to write science fiction as a
throwback to the golden age of science fiction stuff, the
kind of techno-optimistic stuff that I used to read when
I was a kid.

The general unifying principle of what I'd like to see
written for this project is that it should talk about
innovations such that a young person just starting their
career today could read one of these stories and say, hmm,
this doesn't exist now.
But if I start working on it today, by the time I retire,
it might exist.
To Michael Crow, who's--
out there somewhere, there's Michael--
who's the president of Arizona State University, was at the
same conference and made the mistake of falling in with me,
or perhaps vice versa.
He has been busy launching a new entity there called the
Center for Science and the Imagination, which will be a
kind of sibling to this science
fiction writing project.
The name of the science fiction project is Hieroglyph.
And the purpose of this two-headed beast is going to
be to foster direct collaboration between science
fiction writers on the one hand and researchers,
engineers, scientists, and students on the other.
I'm going to have to ask you to read all of this on two
levels at once from here on out.
I'm going to be talking about one specific idea, which you
may find fascinating or you may think
is incredibly stupid.
But at the same time, you need to be thinking about it on a
kind of meta-level as one exemplar of a kind of idea or
a category of thinking that could take other forms.
In other words, this isn't about me or any one particular
idea that I might espouse.
But the idea I'm interested in is in a sense a very old idea
dating at least back to Babylon.
It's the idea of making an incredibly tall building.

What does really tall mean?
It's an interestingly loaded question all by itself.
The default answer for the last century or so has tended
to be a little bit taller than the tallest building today.
So building heights have crept rather than leapt upwards,
since success is defined merely in terms of breaking
the current record.
But that's more a reflection of our impoverished ambitions
than of physics.
As the physicist and science fiction writer Geoff Landis
pointed out in a couple of papers published about 10
years ago, "There's no reason in principle why a tower
couldn't be constructed out a plain old steel to a height of
15 or 20 kilometers."
That's about 20 times the height of the Burj Dubai, the
tallest building in the world today.
Not surprisingly, if you use high tech materials like
carbon fiber, you can go much higher.
But 20 kilometers is not bad.
According to Landis' calculations, a conventional
rocket launched from the top of such a tower would have
double the payload to orbit of a similar rocket
launched from sea level.
And given the cost of launching anything whatsoever
into orbit, that starts to add up to an interesting economic
argument pretty quickly.
Those of you who've studied the physics of space launch
may want to talk about these numbers.
I certainly would if I were you.
And I personally would like nothing more than to geek out
about the space and physics aspects all night long.
And I'm happy to do that later.
But if all we're talking about is space launch, the real
promise of building an incredibly tall building lies
not simply in launching conventional rockets off the
top of it, but in using it to support other, more innovative
types of launchers.
Beyond that, such a structure could have many other uses,
some of which I can imagine and some of which I can't.
And so part of what I'd eventually like to do-- this
will come as a surprise, hopefully a
pleasant surprise to Peter--
is to design the tower in the abstract and then throw the
question out to the general public, OK, if this tower
existed, what can you think of to do with it?
There's an x-prize.
Here's a 20 kilometer tower.
What can you build on it?
With the help of Michael, I made contact with Doctor Keith
Hjelmstad, who's an engineering professor at
Arizona State whose resume happens to
be perfect for this.
I mean, it's kind of weird.
If I asked a genie to produce the perfect guy to think about
this problem, Keith would step out of the swirling cloud of
purple mist.
So Keith has been working on this problem pretty hard on a
much more sophisticated level than I'm capable of, and
taking into account things like wind loading.
You'd have to assume that this tower would get hit by the jet
stream occasionally.
And the jet stream is an awesome force of nature.
Even if you allow for that, Keith's conclusion so far is
that even under those extreme conditions, making a 15
kilometer high tower out of steel is probably doable.
No fundamentally new technology is required.
And that's an important detail.
This is a pilot project.
It's the first in what we hope will be a stream of ideas that
will germinate in the heads of SF writers and make their way
into some kind of development.
As such, it could set a pattern.
And I sort of like the idea of having our first project be
one that is clearly technologically possible.
Because that shifts the burden away from the engineers and
onto the shoulders of the society in
which they're invented.
If you remove the it's just not possible excuse, then it
raises the question of, why aren't we doing it then?
Which is what's interesting to me and apparently a lot of
other people.
There's a lot of technologically feasible
things that we're failing to do, such as becoming energy
What is going on in the financial and management
worlds that has caused us to narrow our scope and reduce
our ambitions so drastically?
I don't claim to know the answer.
But I think it's a good question.
And I'm hoping that during the course of the next couple of
days, we might make some progress towards answering it.
Thank you.