The Wasp

In the late 1950’s, when I was a high school student in Pittsburgh, life was simpler. Take electronics. One day our next-door neighbor, an electrical engineer who worked with my dad at the Westinghouse Research Laboratories, gave me a small kit to build a crystal radio set. No more than half a dozen components on a small cardboard box. But I could listen to radio stations, on something I’d built myself.

Wow. From that start I came to love electronics. Back then, radios and televisions and stereo equipment were mostly based on vacuum tubes. It was easy to understand how things worked, and what would go wrong, and how to do repairs. My brother also got hooked. He and I built or fixed quite a few radios and some hi-fi equipment before we went away to college. The neighbors seemed to appreciate it and our parents didn’t mind too much.

Science fiction was also simpler. These days, a lot of science fiction requires a great deal from the reader. Authors use lot of allusions and references to earlier work. They write trilogies and multi-volume series that progressively build up whole alternative universes and realities and generations of characters. Science fiction blends in with fantasy. It’s difficult to enjoy science fiction in a haphazard, happy-go-lucky way. You have to be avid. Dedicated. All-in.

But back in the day, science-fiction novels featured little more than laughably rudimentary spaceships, human beings and BEMs[1]  Or perhaps you knew you were in the future because the weaponry was advanced, or the vehicles operated on mysterious principles, and the skyscrapers were sleeker and higher than we knew them back then. It was easy to jump in and follow the plot.

I read a lot of science fiction in the fifties and sixties. One of the stories that made the greatest impression on me? Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell, written in 1957. [I was stunned just now to find that it has merited a Wikipedia entry, which is shared here.]

Wasp tells the story of a terrorist, one James Mowry, an earthling who’s dropped into the Sirian Empire (as in Sirius, the star) to disrupt it before the arrival of a Terran invasion force. His operating philosophy? It’s based on a newspaper account appearing at the beginning of the novel. A car driver was killed because he allowed a wasp buzzing around the interior of his automobile to distract him to the point of losing control of his vehicle. Like that wasp, Mowry buzzes about the Sirian empire, one step ahead of the law, putting up subversive slogans, sending around phony death threats, creating the impression of a terrorist organization operating (and growing) in the heart of the Empire. The Sirians become so preoccupied with this fabricated threat that they fail to notice the invading Terran force until too late.

Something similar happened in real life to Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, a Lockheed L1011 Tristar jet that crashed into the Florida Everglades on December 29, 1972. One hundred people died. The cause? The flight crew was busy troubleshooting – not the landing gear itself (that might have been understandable), but the landing gear position indicator system. They failed to notice the autopilot had been deactivated. The plane lost altitude, and by the time the crew realized the danger, they couldn’t regain control of the aircraft.

Today, because in the world of aviation people learn from experience, CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) dictates that one crew member shall give primary attention to flying the plane, regardless of whatever other troubleshooting efforts may be required.

Which brings us back to those pilots of our previous post…and the government shutdown that seems to have everyone’s full attention at the moment.

That shutdown? It’s a distraction. And it fortunately, it’s not preoccupying all of Earth’s seven-billion-person crew. The rest of us…or some considerable fraction of the rest of us…need to remain focus on flying our society through the real world…the world grudgingly offering us resources, the world losing its capacity to provide ecosystem services as the environment degrades, the world of natural threats such as tsunamis whose impacts are magnified by the cities and nuclear power plants we build in harm’s way. This is the business that matters most to the human race.

But as we do our own CRM, perhaps we need to shift more resources toward this task of living on the real world.

Now a lot of economists might correctly note that there’s an element of opportunity cost here. Every person who is working on the world as resource, victim, and threat, means one person fewer building wealth through innovation in electronics (back to our story’s start), or biotechnology and human health, or the creation of novel financial instruments, etc.

But how bad can this be? In the United States, we spend perhaps ten billion dollars a year on the tasks of monitoring the Earth and its processes, modeling those processes, and using the models to predict future conditions that may be of concern (the daily weather extremes, air quality and water quality tests, agricultural projections and the like). Throw in a bit of related social science: resource economics, environmental policy, the sociology of crisis response, the psychology of risk perception, the communication of uncertainty, etc. Let’s extrapolate worldwide on the basis of GDP. Perhaps the world is spending as much as $40 billion a year on these tasks today. Compare that with the world GDP of $60 trillion per year. It’s less than 0.1%.

The difference in scale suggests that we could double this current level of investment over some short period – say five to seven years. At the end, such work would still be no more than 0.2% of world GDP. Surely that’s too little to negatively impact economic growth more broadly.

Along the way, we could monitor progress and see if we liked the results. Would weather forecasts improve? By how much? Could we be more confident of grain and livestock projections? To what extent? Could we spot transitions to El Nino and La Nina circulations a bit earlier in the cycle? Would we reduce weather vulnerabilities of transportation, of energy production, and the like? Could we measure how much these advances would add to overall economic growth in weather-dependent economic sectors?

Most of us would be willing to make a forecast here – that we would indeed like the results. That we might then let the investment strategy ride, and boost the investment up to 0.4% of GDP.

Fourteen years from now? Maybe by then the world would be agog about the new bit of technology reported in this week’s Science (Artificial leaf turns sunlight into a cheap energy source, by Robert F. Service: 1 April 2011:25). Just a squib, but it seems scientists have developed a new laminar composite material able to catalyze the separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen using sunlight. This just might open the door to a scalable means for developing a hydrogen-based, renewable energy economy. [Early days, and of course this may well not pan out. But if not this approach, there’ll likely soon be another. And another.]

Such a breakthrough would generate a lot of buzz.

Wasp? What wasp?

[1] (Just wanted to see who had to look)…Bug-Eyed Monsters

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One Response to The Wasp

  1. Pingback: What would puzzle Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers today? | Living on the Real World

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