Episode 13: Ariel Waldman
Ariel Waldman is the founder of Spacehack.org, a platform to allow anyone to participate in space exploration. We spoke about the democratization of science, who science is working for, and some of the ideas of “good” that guide scientific research and technological development. As usual, connections with earlier conversations abound. Listen for a continuation of Alexander Rose‘s claim that, generally, creating more choices is a reasonable way to maximize the good. The idea of “progress” is dragged over the coals again and Aengus and Micah discuss whether it should be a synonym for more complexity, understanding, and material.
Apologies for the slight distortion on Ariel’s track–it was an iPhone pushing data and Aengus didn’t catch it until the interview was over. He’s not the brightest, but he means well.
Illustrations by Eleanor Davis at www.doing-fine.com.
Good interview, chaps. And although I noticed the distortion in the recording, it wasn’t a distraction at all. But let’s not use that as a reason not to shake out collective fists in the direction of the Apple Corporation.
I am the first to admit (most likely due to the many childhood and adult hours I squandered consuming massive amounts of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and other science fiction) that space exploration is just plain cool. Just plain cool, however, is a difficult thing to quantitatively or qualitatively measure or explain. I don’t even know if I can somehow couple it to some vague notion of progress. I want people to go do neat stuff in space because I want it to happen, not necessarily because I want minerals to be mined from asteroids or miracle cures to be discovered growing on the shady side of a rock on Mercury. I can, of course, only speak for myself in this, but the butterflies I get in my stomach from the idea penetrating the final frontier are not hatched from an altruistic cocoon. I want my own TARDIS, and I want to shoot some aliens with a phaser.
I found the way progress and nostalgia were contrasted in this interview to be very interesting indeed. Although Ms. Waldman didn’t seem to be overly or unnecessarily critical of anyone or any ideology, I still couldn’t help but feel that the opposite of progress, nostalgia, was cast in a very quaint and problematic light. I don’t really have a favorite in the sumo-like wrestling match between progress and nostalgia, but it seems as though we are just witnessing the latest round of a competition that can be traced back at least to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the advocates of the Enlightenment and early Romanticism started to salt the ring in preparation of belly-bouncing and underwear grabbing. It’s easy (especially for us Americans, as Ms. Waldman wisely pointed out) to root for the Enlightenment and its progress, but we should never fool ourselves into believing that the powdered wigs are going to win because they should. One need look no further than Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s “Dialectic of the Enlightenment” to see that progress, and the worship or mythologization thereof, can be a very problematic thing indeed. That does not necessarily lead us to the polar opposite conclusion, though: that wandering the countryside, dreaming and writing poetry about blue flowers, knights in armor, and a reconnection to an unrealistic notion of the past is a good way to spend one’s time and mental energy. Instead, I would suggest trying first to engage in a bit of deconstruction of the very notions and their terminology. I know what you’re thinking, “Oh no, he’s going to start talking about Nietzsche and his gaggle of twentieth century French admirers. Please don’t go there!” Go there I must, however, as I do believe that an intense genealogical dissection or a thorough discourse analysis would serve us best. We should at least know what things like progress and nostalgia actually mean and where they come from before we start throwing them around willy-nilly. If we don’t, we run the risk of doing something silly like all going on the caveman diet or getting caught up in building the galaxy’s largest rollercoaster on Olympus Mons.
But as the man says, “You can’t stop progress.”
“Dialectic of Enlightenment”? Jeezy peezy! That guy should spend more time feeding the chickens. I like the Sumo thing, though I think the battle isn’t between nostalgia and progress, but between versions of progress and who gets the goodies. Do they really salt the sumo ring? Salt? Do they cook the loser?
In addition to things like the planet hunter project that Ariel describes (and other ones listed on her website), basically all data taken by every NASA mission is in the public domain, and most of the software used to read and analyze it is freely available as well. It’s not always straightforward to navigate and figure out, but the main site for data/software access is here:
In planetary exploration as in many things, people often go for the low-hanging fruit and then move on to the next thing without fully mining the data for all it’s worth, so there’s still a lot to be done with the datasets that are out there, and much of that can be done by amateurs. For example, an amateur astronomer recently took and reprocessed old Voyager data to make one of the best images of Jupiter’s great Red Spot ever produced:
It would be great to see more things like that. Maybe one of the next NASA citizen-scientist projects should be something to more efficiently get spacecraft imagery data into the hands of amateur astronomers and image processing enthusiasts and see what they can do with it.