Monday, March 19, 2012

How We Make The Case: Update (We Stopped Dreaming)

Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of attending a talk by the head of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Although he is previously known for being a great communicator of science (and also for being the public face of Pluto not being a planet anymore), his recent shift has been to focus on the case for Mars:

The talk was around an interesting topic: why we stopped going to the Moon.

The starting point for the talk was an article Dr. Tyson wrote about what makes people write checks for discovery. Not why discoverers have walked into the unknown, but why they were given staggering amounts of money to do that. 

The big projects -- projects which weren't just expensive, but eating-up-your-GDP expensive -- were:

  • The Apollo Project
  • The Manhattan Project
  • The Great Pyramids
  • Columbus' expedition
  • Magellan's expedition
  • The cathedrals of Europe
The three reasons he mentions as to why the people who write the checks do what they do is:
  • The fear of dying: the Apollo Project and the Manhattan Project came out of fears of external forces that could destroy them; Nazism and Communism.
  • The fear of dying poor: Columbus and Magellan were commissioned to explore the world out of the belief that they could create massive competitive advantages.
  • Glory to a higher power: The Great Pyramids, and the Cathedrals of Europe.
The third one, Glory to a Higher Power, he dismissed out-of-hand -- the only reason they worked in the past, he contends, is that the money was held by autocrats whose own emotional fears and motivation. Today, the projects are in the first two categories.

To all the people who contended that there were other ways to make the case, he had one word to describe them: delusional.

(he used that phrase to describe Buzz Aldrin repeatedly... that may be my favorite beef ever).

And if that's science and discovery, how could the arts be any more compelling?

Previously, I put together an eight part series on how we make the case for the arts, and looking back, it seems like half of the answers would make the cut (e.g. Isaac's "Arts Money Is Real Money") but no argument we've ever put forward even comes close to the scale of impetus of those major programs.