17 June, 2005

Where Have You Gone, Mr. Roboto?

Neal Stephenson thinks Americans have lost interest in science.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

This has been his mantra since the days of SnowCrash , when he predicted that the United States would one day be known chiefly for its rapid response pizza delivery. He's well known as the Prophet of Outsourcing Doom, so I expect nothing less from him in this instance.

I'm not so sure he's right, though. Temporarily clinging to the assumption that nationalism is always a good thing in scientific endeavours, I posit that any country which can cultivate X Prize winners and Nobel Prize winners in Physics and Medicine is still a vibrantly active leader in the scientific community.

Any branch of science is an exacting discipline that requires aptitude and precision. As the firm sciences grow more specialised, I believe it is natural to see fewer people gravitate toward them. Those who do elect to pursue that lifestyle are well-suited for it and will carry their gifts into the future. I find that there are still many of us, myself included, who are very interested in science but appreciate our own limitations. Some of even go as far as getting a college degree in geology before we abandon that for something we enjoy more. Like fiction writing. True, Mr. Stephenson?

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