Friday, July 22, 2011

Nerd Pic: Nerds Unlimited

The king is dead: long live the king.

With the space shuttle program shuddering through its last breaths over the past week, I felt a melancholic draw to remind ourselves as a collective of jaded modernists that there is still wonder in the world, there are still great things to be done, and at the forefront of many of those wonders are a bunch of nerds that just won't quit.

Perhaps part of this somber draw to highlight the grandeur of human achievement over the past few decades is the inclusion of part of JFK's 1961 moon speech to congress in Transformers Dark of the Moon. I'll be talking about that movie later, but I think that the lunar landing itself is a grand, romantic spectacle driven by nerds and supported by a proud nation. I don't like John F. Kennedy as a president. He made blunders in foreign policy due to cultural ignorance regarding the Soviet Union that we'd never excuse of a political leader who wasn't completely over-idealized. The economics of many of his spending plans were fanciful to say the least, spending more while claiming to be trying to tax less--especially on the high end of the tax bracket, where he seemed to be protecting the east coast aristocracy from which he sprung. But the way he championed a special interest that was more about the prestige of a jaded nation is the definition of inspiration. And the words he used to accomplish that feat were timeless. A sampling of JFK's famous 1962 moon speech at Rice University:
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.
The above quote was immediately following an analysis of the absurd costs of JFK's space program. Over five billion dollars by his estimates, and with the costs only going up as the years progressed, the president lauded this as a virtue. Boldness. Or audacity. He wasn't talking about making outrageous claims, or circumventing logic in the blind pursuit of a self-serving goal despite the advice of concerned advisors. The boldness--the audacity--JFK was exhorting a nation towards was a sense of wonder, and achievement at the expense of luxuries Americans had come to consider necessities.

As individuals and as a nation, there are times when you should make painful, practical judgments about what is worth your time, your money, and the investment of your spirit. When you do that, though, you must double count the edification of the activity. For instance, a two dollar soda--which will be urine in a matter of hours--is not worth half as much as a four dollar book--which might take hours to read and years to forget. As a nation, the cost of a rocket is incomparable to the inspiration and thrill of pride passed on through the legacy of our space program. JFK explained that in his closing comments to Rice University:
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."
Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
Thank you.
Today America is in a time of depression, and I'm not referring to the economy. I mean in the optimism and the ability of our leadership to get people excited about something truly constructive. In 1961, JFK pushed a huge space budget down Congress' throat in the pursuit of a nerdy vision that had no foreseeable immediate benefits. And the country followed suit. Today, the space shuttle is being mothballed--and not to be replaced any time soon--out of concern for the budget. Our nation is collectively giving up on its dreams, and for the next few decades all American astronauts will be hitch-hiking another nation's rockets. I don't mean to get too political, but the fact is there is very little hope for the American space program right now, and even if you don't blame the leadership, we certainly aren't getting any rousing speeches designed to unite the country under a common banner of greatness for the sake of aristeia.

Aristeia is a greek word that roughly means 'excellence'. In ancient Greece, it was the central factor in 'good art', whether through their epic poems or their sculptures. It's a picture of poise and beauty, where the tenuous balance of forces exemplifies the control and the educated ambition of those who define that moment of aristeia. It isn't about perfection, as being flawless is an indication of too much caution or not enough hunger for greatness. The key is in the balance, when one falls completely under extreme forces and finds balance in a combination of strength, will, and grace. When one nation pushed itself past vested self-interest to put footprints on a sphere a quarter million miles away, they were achieving a moment of that carefully balanced excellence. The forces of economic recession, of international scandal and global pressure, and of heart-breaking accidents at home all pitted themselves against the public will. A public will that long-suffering perseverance would see a better future through dedication, reason, cooperation, and naive dreams.

"...the cost of a rocket is incomparable to the inspiration and thrill of pride passed on through the legacy of our space program."

And so today I insist that nerds are responsible for helping our society, our age, and this country break the bounds of nature's most formidable limits. This isn't a self-affirming award, but an undying belief that the modern world needs whimsy to be bearable. And a nerd is worthless if he has no whimsy. That is the quality that powers the drive we have to constantly expound upon our interests, our hopes for the future near and far, and to gather our enthusiasms together even when those same activities ostracize ourselves from those intimidated by our vision or put off by our excitement. Because a real nerd knows that a full, personal commitment to their hobbies is worth it when there's a chance that one day we'll be given the tools to once again rub out the line that separates our dreams from reality.

The picture above has several iconic images combined into one. In Buzz Aldrin's visor, there is an image of a fighter breaking the sound barrier--generally believed to have first been broken by Chuck Yeager in the X-1 prototype when he reached Mach 1.07 on October 14, 1947. Featured center in the visor is a picture from the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, with Buzz Aldrin saluting the flag in front of the landing module. And on the right part of the visor is Oscar Pistorius, a South African dual amputee who lost both legs before his first birthday. Today he is a champion sprinter who rivals competitors with both legs, and he's been in the news lately as the Olympic commission has refused to allow him to compete due to his situation. All of these people are tremendous individuals who won victories in fields pioneered, planned, and directed by nerds. And so, just over the horizon, there is the USS Enterprise. One of the most recognizable flagships of nerdery around, for better or worse. It is by design emblematic of warp and FTL (faster-than-light) technology in general. Exceeding the speed of light--what I term the light barrier to invoke the fragile sound barrier we once called impassable--is today considered unreachable. But one day it will be defeated by a nerd. Someone with a fantastic, unrealistic vision of a world that might be, and an unabashed enthusiasm for bringing that whimsy to the world around him.

After thirty years of discovery and achievement, the space shuttle program is no more. This administration has panned the development of a successor, virtually ensuring that our generation will not be responsible for building the next great spacecraft, but one day another reusable re-entry vehicle will be sent into our planet's orbit and beyond. Maybe it won't have an American flag--though I hope it will. But it will have a nerd's signature on every support and running through its fuel lines.

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