The rocket’s supposed to be moving, and it probably is, but everyone knows that you can’t see that with the naked eye. Not at first. The announcer said “Lift-off” – well, that probably happened sometime during the lunch hour, it’s easy to miss – and the first thing you look for is the exhaust starting to ooze out, jelly-like, from beneath the engines, slowly spreading across the pad. If you pick a spot on the rocket itself and look away for a while, you can eventually see that it’s rising up into the air, but it’s like the minute hand on a clock. You can only tell once it’s happened. Glacially, the astronauts creep into the sky on their month-long journey up to Earth orbit, and next spring, by which time they’ll nearly have made it around the earth twice, they’ll make the fateful decision to fire the second-stage rockets that will send them, over the next eight years of their lives, to the moon.
Welcome to Apollo program, folks. Not the way you remember it? All I’ve done is make the same mistake that Bill Gates has; I just made it in the other direction. Gates has come out with a call for leadership and innovation, which is what he does, but while I applaud where his heart is I have wonder what happened to his head. Here’s Keith Robison taking him to task on the same grounds I am, and he’s absolutely right. Gates says that over the next ten years, if we just learn the lessons of the Apollo moon program, we can:
- Provide everyone on earth with affordable energy without contributing to climate change.
- Develop a vaccine for HIV and a cure for neurodegenerative diseases.
- Protect the world from future health epidemics, which might be more infectious than Ebola and more deadly than Zika.
- Give every student and teacher new tools so all students get a world-class education.
Admirable goals. But this is gasbaggery. These proposals are a mixture of engineering, basic science, politics, economics, and more, and to go on about how all we need to get on them is to “accelerate innovation with leadership” and “transform our view of what’s possible” is embarrassing. Bill Gates is a very intelligent person, and he and his foundation have done a lot of good in the world. But he didn’t do any of it by writing stuff like this.
Robison’s post zeroes in on the call to cure Alzheimer’s disease, and that’s what I used to slow down the Saturn V above. If Bill Gates is thinking about a cure for neurodegenerative disease in ten years, he’d better have a bottle of a great drug candidate in his pocket right now, because time’s-a-wasting. In fact, that timeline is absurd. It’s going to take ten years in the clinic just to see if anything works against Alzheimer’s. And that’s not because we don’t have “innovative leadership”; that’s the pace at which Alzheimer’s disease develops in human tissue. Giving speeches will not help. A human brain can make of Gates’ editorial what it will, but the neurons themselves are immune to calls to dream big and seize the future.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against the goals stated above – I’m not, of course. What I’m against is mixing all of them together (and they’re very different) and pretending that they’re all subject to the same kind of solution. And when that “solution” itself is pixie dust (sprinkle faster! sprinkle harder!) it’s even harder to take. I’m very much in favor of his call to do more basic research; I think that’s a great idea. But to tie that to talk of accomplishing all those goals inside ten years, if we just really believe in ourselves, is hard to take. I know, I know, we went to the moon in that time, but it’s way past time that everyone realized that getting to the moon was (in comparison, and only in comparison) not all that hard. I do remember watching Apollo 11 (I was seven), and I never would have imagined saying this when I was growing up, but the older I get the more I think that the Apollo program, for all its accomplishments, actually did a lot of damage. And I mean damage to space flight (the hangover was awful), but I especially mean damage to human perceptions of what science is and how you go about solving hard problems with it.
As for Bill Gates, well, he’s right in step with his old company about the timelines needed for this kind of thing. (That link contains the rest of my case against people from the hardware/software worlds coming in to tell us all how to fix Alzheimer’s and cancer). By these standards, the Gates Foundation should have cured malaria some time ago. But I don’t want to be too much of a pain about this – if you looks at Gates’ actions, instead of reading his words, he’s been doing just the kind of research spending that is needed to solve problems like this. As far as I know, he didn’t announce a malaria moonshot; he just got in there and decided where the money would best be spent and starting funding people, and good for him for doing it. Unless I missed it, he didn’t talk about curing malaria in X years or go around telling everyone how innovative leadership would give those Plasmodium parasites the what-for, because after all, we went to the moon, didn’t we? I like that Bill Gates a hell of a lot more than the one who wrote this editorial.