The (former) space program

I posted on Facebook a couple of days ago about why I believe that manned spaceflight in general, and the moon landings in particular, are the greatest achievement of human civilisation to date. Rather than comment on everyone’s comments, I thought I’d write something down here instead. Importantly, my ideas about this may not be the same as yours, and that’s ok.

First things first – as Bed commented, we need to define our terms.  What is human civilisation? More importantly, what does greatest mean? We could argue for hours about this, so I’ll keep it simple. I consider human civilisation to be everything that has happened since the the mastery of fire, so that might take it back 200,000 years or more. No other animals use fire in remotely the same way that we do, so we’re alone in that club.

Speaking of terminology, some people objected to my use of “manned” as a potentially sexist term. I agree that it’s not perfect, but I’m not aware of any term in the English language that captures the same meaning and not hopelessly awkward. So I’ve stuck with manned, while fully acknowledging that numerous shuttle and Mir missions have included female members.

The gnarlier question is: what does “greatest” mean? Clearly there are as many ways of defining this as there are people, which is why I asked for comment. None of these are right or wrong necessarily, although they may display different focusses.

A couple of people mentioned various technological developments such as clean drinking water, vaccines and antibiotics. I think these are all excellent things, and from a public health point of view there is no question that they have been the biggest factors in increasing the human population and life expectancy over the whole of our history. Our very ability to achieve space missions probably relies on these medical innovations and the society that they have allowed to flourish. But I consider these to be foundational achievements which enable greater ones, not pinnacles in themselves. I think the development of written language is similar – a massive technological innovation which enabled many other subsequent ones. So when I talk about the “greatest” achievement, I probably think of it more as a summit of a mountain than a foundation of a building.

The main reason that I think that manned spaceflight is the greatest achievement of human civilisation is that it represents the ultimate expression of the human ability to shape our environment. Space and the moon are so completely hostile to life, especially human life, that we wouldn’t be able to last more than thirty seconds without our technology. The human species has spent the last half a million years shaping the world to meet our needs – escaping the earth entirely in order to live outside of it is a transcendent success. From the point of view of evolutionary fitness, our success as a species has been so profound as to allow us to step outside of the terrestrial environment entirely. For the teleologically inclined, being able to go from the development of agriculture to departure from the earth in about 350 generations is very impressive.

As Kyle pointed out, it’s a pity that the space program seems to have effectively ground to a halt. We went from the first satellites to humans on the moon in less than ten years… but that was forty years ago. We seem unable or unwilling to take the next step. That makes me sad because I hope we didn’t peak as a civilisation in the early 1970s. Part of the beauty of the space program was that it shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. That degree of focus and concentration may only be temporary, but to me it’s something to be celebrated.



Clive James

It’ll be a tragedy when Clive James finally dies. Although it seems like his illness has been prolonged, as indeed it often is when one receives excellent care, I know that I will wake up one day soon to hear that he is to be mourned.  He has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest intellectual talents that Australia has thrown up, even though we were too stupid as a country to recognise it in the 1960s.

I never liked him at first. I saw a number of his TV shows and specials in the 1980s as a child, where he delivered smarmy one-liners about television or visited exotic locales to make smarmy one-liners about the locals. My parents loved him and I never understood why. It took me decades to realise that what I took as a talent for cheap shots was actually a great sardonic wit. However I haven’t rewatched any of his TV because 80s production values cause me intense psychic pain.

To me, his TV work, and even his writing about it for the newspapers was a sideshow. His real genius lay in his essays, to which I was first exposed in the form of a thoughtful gift. His perception for wide-ranging and insightful comment is impressive; even more impressive is the fact that his comments are usually hugely entertaining and terribly witty. Again, any perception that he is out for a cheap shot is shattered by the clear love that he has for literature and his deep learning in virtually all fields of culture and history. His knowledge shines through and his judgements are wise.

His most recent collection of essays, Latest Readings comprise a series of short documents discussing the books that he is reading or re-reading at the end of his life. Reflections on Australian poets are interleaved with reflections on the tedium of treatment for oncology. He is rushing to read as many great works as he can before his death, working on the principle that if one is going to die, one might as well die happy. As one might expect, there is a deep vein of sadness that runs throughout the book.

In our age of disposable or downright manufactured media identities, and the decades-long hysteria surround the death of people such as Steve Irwin who represent the denser aspects of Australian culture, I fear that Clive James’ looming demise will attract little attention. It’s disappointing that one of Australia’s best minds is likely to be forgotten relatively quickly, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have a shelf full of his books.

We’re teaching maths wrong

The other day I read an interesting interview with Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and general ideas man. Despite being highly mathematically competent himself, he comments that maths as we know it shouldn’t really be taught in schools, as it is a specialist skill.

I agree.

That is the kind of statement that gets the hackles up of people who work in, for example, engineering or coding.  They talk about how indispensable maths is in their work and I don’t disagree.  What isn’t being recognised is that these are specialist professions which require specialist skills. School teaching, for at least the first ten years, needs to be generalist in focus as we don’t know what destinies the students are bound for.

I think the question we need to answer is what mathematical skills are required for the general population. What do we need to live in the modern world, independent of the needs of our professional life? These are the skills that should be emphasised, and specialised skills taught in the last few years of school, if at all.

Basic arithmetic.  No-one gets very far without a robust toolkit of basic skills in order to do everyday life activities such as buying and selling. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are the big ones. The emphasis here should be on a multiplicity of approaches – if a student has an idiosyncratic method which nevertheless gets the right answer, that is great.

Basic algebra. Most people get along just fine without calculus, but it’s really useful to be able to wrangle a few simple a + b = x problems.

Basic geometry. At some point in their life, everyone has to measure and build something, and needs to know how physical shapes interact. This might involve some very basic trigonometry, but not much more. If medieval people managed to build cathedrals with basic geometry, most modern adults will be fine.

Lots of probability and statistics. I think that training in probability is one of the most important things to be educated in.  Our modern world relies on being able to determine which of two events is more likely, whether it’s in the casino, in elections, insurance, and all forms of planning for the future. In particular it is nearly impossible to be scientifically literate without being able to understand simple probability and statistics. This may sound like special pleading but for most of the wicked decisions we have to deal with as a civilisation the answers aren’t clear. We need probability and statistics to interpret the evidence.

So why do we continue to teach maths beyond the basics? Generations of kids have whined about how they’re going to use calculus in the future, and I think they’re right. Why do we teach it?

It seems to me that much of it is a hurdle requirement. Each time my local firefighting service hires professional firefighters, there are so many applicants that they have to thin the list some way in order to avoid conducting 3000 interviews. So they set the fitness requirements absurdly high, generally much higher than are required for the job itself. I suspect that late school maths is the same – it is being used as a way of separating out the clever kids from the less clever ones by teaching a skill that is only useful for very specific populations of student.

Apart from overhauling the curriculum, I feel that we need to put a lot more thought into how we separate the wheat from the chaff.  Just as medical schools realised years ago that high marks are a poor proxy for whether someone will make a good doctor, maths-as-performance-art is the wrong fork in the road.