Confessions of a Disillusioned Scientist

AI-generated stranger; I’m not so young/attractive

After a rocket ride through science, I am hanging up the gloves, feeling a little ashamed and embarrassed to have devoted so much of my life to what I now see as a misguided cause that has done more harm than good in this world.

The previous post details my views about the limits of science. In this post, I will focus more on my own reaction as a human participant in the enterprise.

As is so often the case, my trajectory, in hindsight, looks straightforward and linear. Halley’s comet introduced me to the sky in 1985–1986 at age 15–16, quickly leading to my building a 10-inch Newtonian telescope on a German equatorial mount (using plumbing parts from my plumber neighbor). Through this telescope, I saw all nine planets in one night (when there were nine), an individual star (supernova) 36 million light years away, and a quasar 2 billion light years away. I was a physics major at Georgia Tech and spent every-other-quarter at the Naval Research Lab working on optical communications for space. I had my pick of graduate schools, and chose Caltech for its idyllic setting, its relaxed, collaborative atmosphere, and access to “big glass.” Within a few months of starting, I had gone on observing runs to the venerable Palomar 200-inch telescope and the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory on Mauna Kea. What a dream I was living! Meanwhile, I enjoyed many outdoor adventures with fellow grad students, some of whom have become life-long friends.

I did not expect to stay in academia (the statistics were not encouraging to a middling student), and interviewed at a few “industry” jobs while also dipping a toe into “prize” postdoc fellowships and create-your-own postdoc adventures. I picked one from the “adventure” bucket, to start a lunar laser ranging project as a test of general relativity at the University of Washington. Abandoning my graduate expertise in infrared astronomical instrumentation was risky, but I saw this postdoc as a last hurrah in academia, deciding that I might as well have fun. I loved the people I worked with, and savored my time in Seattle. Unintentionally, this gutsy move looked very attractive to faculty search committees, two of which tracked me down based on the reputation of my graduate work and then put me on their short lists after learning of my new direction. One of these led to a tenure-track job at UCSD starting in 2003, where I kept the pedal to the metal on the lunar ranging project. During a 20 year career there, I was never turned down for funding my project, hit all the usual promotion steps at the expected times (tenure then full professor), and felt that I had “made it” by all traditional measures. Having written and reviewed a large number of peer-reviewed papers and served as panel reviewer for NASA and the NSF for far more proposals than I ever wrote, I knew the “game” quite well. I had a versatile set of powerful tools that I could bring to bear on what seemed like almost any problem. Science was, in some ways, the essence of my being, and I found plenty of reward in it—both intrinsically and societally.

So, what happened?

Continue reading

Hits: 11702

Married to an Axe Murderer

The day you met your spouse, it was love at first sight. They were charming, witty, warm and affectionate, good-looking, complimentary, showered you with gifts, devoted time to you, pledged to look after you into your old age and even to help take care of your aging parents. They impressed you with their big dreams: raising a family, buying a big house, owning expensive cars, traveling the world, and they were inexplicably adept at putting meat on the table.

It goes without saying that you got married. What a lucky catch!

It didn’t take long before suspicions arose: unaccountable nocturnal absences; waking to the sound of laundry being done at 4 AM; an odd reluctance to move the axe out of the car trunk and into the garage with the other tools. But why spoil a good thing with awkward questions? Life for you is going great, so better not to rock the boat with silly notions of some monstrous secret. Plus, you’re in love!

But the cops finally caught up and your yard turned into a media-infested nightmare. It took ages to even accept the possibility that this was real—not a case of mistaken identity or wrongful framing. How could such a generous and loving partner really be a violent menace?

So here’s the thing: Modernity is an axe murderer, and we’re—unfortunately—married to it. It isn’t hard to see modernity’s fatal flaw of being constitutionally unsustainable, and that it’s on a violent rampage. Turns out it’s been out at nights murdering the planet.

So how do we react? What does this mean for us?

Continue reading

Hits: 1839

Learning to Walk Again

For many years now, I have made efforts to live differently—initially motivated by a sense of resource limits and the recognition that scaling back could have a dramatic effect if adopted widely. I was able to cut my domestic energy demand by a factor of four or five. I changed my habits of diet, travel, heating/cooling, laundry, showering, consumer activity, and much else.

Yet I remain firmly in the grip of modern ways. I am still a member of “normal” society, and don’t (yet) draw stares when I go out in public. I live in a house, drive a car (sparingly), buy food at a grocery store, and eat lunch at the university food court. Yes, I could shed more of these. I could try a living in a yurt, getting by without owning a car, and finding ways to get my food locally without scanning bar codes. But even though I have gone much farther than most, going “all the way” has always felt a little overboard to me. It edged up to seeming performative; to virtue-signaling; to those choices becoming the focus instead of a means. I often think of it in terms of trying to convince a group of hikers to make better progress: you don’t do it by disappearing over the horizon and losing influence. You’re better off staying close enough to encourage others along.

When reading the book Hospicing Modernity, by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, I came across this great analogy:

There is a popular saying in Brazil that illustrates this insight using water… The saying goes that in a flood situation, it is only when the water reaches people’s hips that it becomes possible for them to swim. Before that, with the water at our ankles or knees, it is only possible to walk or to wade. In other words, we might only be able to learn to swim—that is, to exist differently—once we have no other choice.

I instantly had a new friend in this metaphor. In fact, it filled a gaping hole that had been present for many years. Sure, I could flop down and try to swim right now, but I would look a fool floundering in the muddy water. Yet, I can help prepare myself and others for the day when we must swim.

As much as I love this framing, one thing bothers me about it, and I have a proposed alternative, but it has the downside of requiring a longer telling.

Continue reading

Hits: 3357

Desperate Odds?

Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, one of the dialogs I especially enjoyed was in Chapter 11 when the pupil expressed his anxiety around pre-civilization life. The mental image he shared was of a man running along a ridge in deepening twilight, hungry and following tracks on the hunt, while tooth and claw pursued not far behind. The man is “forever one step behind his prey and one step ahead of his enemies.” Ishmael, role-playing a hunter-gatherer, laughed off the concerns as being wildly off the mark.

I find similar expressions of fear from people when I challenge the viability of modernity. For many, losing modernity is a frightening prospect tantamount to certain death—either by starvation or violence by man or beast. The projection is that modernity is the only thing standing between us and a life of misery and anxiety. But since it’s not even a choice whether to continue modernity (unsustainable things fail), we may as well start to think about life without that particular security blanket.

How frightened should we be? Was pre-civilization life a miserable, desperate struggle, or did things seem to be pretty well in hand? I can offer some quantitative arguments suggesting that life could not have been that knife-edge, white-knuckle anxious.

Continue reading

Hits: 2337

Here We Are

I was asked some months ago by the Australian Foodweb Education organization to participate in their Here We Are project. The idea is to reflect on the statement: “Here we are, alive, at this moment, in this place, together.”

Over the course of several months, I occasionally tried a written-form response, which might later form the basis for a recording. But I was never quite happy with the result—in part because my viewpoint has been rapidly evolving, making it hard to be completely satisfied.

Finally, in April, I felt ready. So I sat on a grassy slope in La Jolla soaking in a chorus of frog song and jotted down bullet points in some semblance of order. I am not talented enough to read a script without it sounding like I’m reading a script, so kept it light. But when I got to my office to make a recording, I wrote the prompt on my whiteboard and realized I could dissect the sentence in a way that captured my perspectives pretty well. I was able to adapt most of the frog-inspired points into something that seems well designed, but in truth emerged rather rapidly.

For my zoom-recorded session background, I chose from the two or three stock images one that both reminds me of the grassy slope where I committed ideas to paper, and fittingly puts me in my place with respect to nature.

Okay—that’s enough backstory. Here is the video recording, and what follows is a relatively faithful transcript, removing a surprising number of “ums” and “you knows,” and patching up a few things with [insertions]. It’s not as polished as a written work, but it is what it is. I did take the liberty of inserting two bits that it pains me not to have included in the recording, which I represent in green font.

Continue reading

Hits: 3343