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As Thin As a Soap Bubble

Words of wisdom from Jane Galt over at Asymmetrical Information:
“The appalling povery of Sri Lanka or Mozambique is not some bizarre aberration that can be tracked to a cause we can cure. We are the aberration; Sri Lanka and Mozambique are the normal state of human history.”
Very sad, and very true. I’ve often had the same thought with respect to my work as a scientist. This is the only time in all of human history that I could have done some of the things that I’ve done. The human race has had capable and expanding technology for only a short time compared to the millennia spent hacking our living from the ground and running for our lives. The average snapshot of a person my age, taken any time over the last couple of hundred thousand years, has been of someone nervously gnawing on a bone while the wind howls around their shelter of rocks and branches. Well, that would be the scene only if I’m not already over the average male lifespan over that period, which I may well be.
No, my situation (and yours, too, if you’re reading this at all) is a crazy outlier out on the right-hand edge of the curve: a nice climate-controlled roof over my head, a recent meal and no worries about the next one, no fear of wild animals or bands of club-wielding scavengers, no smallpox or polio to carry me off. And instead of grunting out a subsistence living, I get to sit in a well-appointed room and get paid for thinking up new ideas and trying them out with rare and expensive equipment.
Francis Bacon had it right: our trade is “the effecting of all things possible.” We should never forget to enjoy it as much as possible, and do everything we can to keep it alive.

6 comments on “As Thin As a Soap Bubble”

  1. David Govett says:

    The cures for mankind’s ills are being developed in the lab right now: biotechnology and nanotechnology. Poverty and its attendant disease will be ancient history by the 22nd century. (Demographic trends alone will go far to alleviate poverty.) Imagine the Wal-Marting of pharmaceuticals and every other high-value-added product by nanotech factories. Fellow humans, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. (Whether it’s for good or ill, it’s too early to say.)

  2. Reader says:

    I realize that at a demographic level, clean water and sanitation have outweighed most or all of “personal” medicine. And some paleontologists believe that long before that, simply cooking food went far to extend lifespans past the point when your teeth went bad.
    But it’s the personal aspects that you *feel* — in my own case, one throat abscess that blew up from nothing quickly, one episode of bronchitis that turned into very painful pleuritis overnight. Both times I faced what could very well have been mortality for 99.999% of human history, and both times a horse pill of antibiotic started turning it around within hours.

  3. jsinger says:

    To nitpick — there are far more people on the planet today, so it’s not the case that the likelihood of being born any time between Neanderthal times and today is uniform. The chances of a given person living today (or in the last century) isn’t _that_ low.

    Sorry — I’ll go back to SAS now…

  4. Scott says:

    Having traveled to numerous 3rd world countries, I’ve been impressed with how happy people seem in their crowded poverty-stricken environment. I am also impressed with my fellow office workers’ lack of happiness in their climate controlled windowless cubicle environment. I’m not entirely convinced that our way of life is so superior compared to the rest of the world, nor am I convinced that we, the elite, are saving the world with our innovations (while consuming a disproportionate share of resources). But I am convinced that an arrogant self-adulating attitude is never a good thing. Maybe some humility and joining the human race would be an improvement.

  5. Scott S. says:

    I’ve traveled in the third world myself, and I’ve been duly impressed with how UNHAPPY many segments of society are. I could curl your hair with some of my tales of what desperate poverty will do to people.
    The whole idea of the ‘noble savage’ and the ‘happy poor’ is an idea born out of ignorance and a lack of looking beneath the surface.
    And that doesn’t even speak to the terrible depravations the ill endure.

  6. Scott says:

    Yes, Scott S., we all agree that poverty is bad, in 3rd world countries or right here is the U.S., but I think you missed my point.

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