The U. S. space program cost me several hours of sleep Sunday night. Along with some millions of media-linked others worldwide, I glom’d onto the Mars landing. Aware of the complexity of the mission – among the most intricate technological feats ever attempted by man – I was reasonably prepared for disaster.
An uncle of mine played a prominent role in the Canadian and British space programs, and from other odd relations I have often identified with that kind of engineer – a list that now includes my elder son, in the field of electronics. I love the understated poetry in many of their pronouncements, the instinctive use of such figures as litotes. These convey a kind of good-humored stoicism in the face of incomprehensible nature.
The northern, pagan, Germanic peoples – old Norsemen, old Goths, old Angles, old Saxons – delighted in the inversion of hyperbole. But St. Paul, too, who came from “no mean city,” could be Germanic in that way. And perhaps Christ, too, in his appreciation of the droll Nathanael, “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”
Neil Armstrong’s “small step for a man” – a consciously rehearsed attempt at poetical speech – rightly fell to pieces in his mouth. The line that instead made my hair stand on end, as an adolescent during that lunar landing, was: “Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was engineer talk, without guile. It was pure poetry.
On Sunday night, though hard to make out, I seemed to hear a delicious parallel to that: “Gale Crater touchdown. We’re safe on Mars.”
Followed, of course, by an explosion of emotion throughout the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the wild cheering after thousands of man-decades of work, and the “seven minutes of terror” while the little capsule dropped through the thin Martian atmosphere. Then promptly the first low-resolution pictures from the surface; and grown men actually weeping at the sight of a wheel, and the dust it had kicked up.
The feat, according to one expert, was comparable to teeing a ball at the Brookside Golf Club in Pasadena – that must score a hole-in-one on the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland. It was a much better trick than the previous cannon-ball landings on Mars; and the stakes were much higher.
Yet I thought they just might pull it off. I’d watched previously the explanation of a key engineer, who frankly acknowledged that the multiple-step landing system looked crazy, sometimes even to him. That, I thought, was the voice of a man who truly knows what he is doing.
Scientists celebrating the success of Curiosity
But of course, one may fail despite total preparation. Olympic athletes do it all the time, after years of focused training; for nothing on this planet, or any other, is assured. The best engineers know that a magnificent bridge may suddenly collapse from a freak rhythm. They appreciate the cardinal virtue of prudence, which in demanding cases resembles sanctity. Indeed, real science is a training ground for all the virtues, and requires unrelenting humility in the presence of phenomena vastly beyond our little sphere of control.
Physics, the most precise of the natural sciences, is also the narrowest, as good physicists know. It cannot provide answers to general questions, only to very specific questions, formulated in physical terms. The engineering that most depends upon physics is, like the Mars mission, extremely specialized. The other sciences acquire their prestige by aping this precision.
Chemistry, at the dirty end of physics, begins to detach from the entirely predictable. Biology disperses into hare-like tracks. By degrees we “progress” to the vapid positivism of statistical social science, where what we seek to know is unobtainable with any degree of precision, or even logical consistency.
As we proceed away from the very narrow trajectory that can put us down safely on Mars, towards the oceanically broad, we depend less and less on measurable precision, more and more on wisdom and revelation. The same for the technology that follows our quest: for we are less and less able to engineer a result.
By the time we reach sociology, the engineering is a farce. Everything we do in the line of “social engineering” produces serious, unintended consequences.
While I could appreciate the spectacle as well as they, I was slightly distressed by the yammer of the crowd assembled in Times Square, New York, to watch the Mars landing on a big screen. “USA! USA!” might be harmless enough, in context; and ditto, “NASA! NASA!” But when they cried, “Science! Science!” I began to detect that spirit of partisanship, which bespeaks a mob. For the worship of science is not science. It is scientism.
I suspect they hunger not for the disinterested pursuit of truth, but rather, the politicized “settled science” of anthropogenic global warming, or of neo-Darwinism, or of evolutionary psychology, or of many another enterprise that employs the techniques and gadgetry of physical science to pursue ends beyond its reach. We enter fields where the variables defeat all human comprehension, and keep moving as we count. And we acquire tasks compared to which merely scoring a hole-in-one from California to Scotland is a slam-dunk affair.
To take global warming off the top, we must remember that the rocket scientists who shot the Atlas V-541 from Cape Canaveral, could not reliably predict the weather for the launch. It may well be that we will never be able to predict weather with perfect accuracy even one week hence, because the frontal systems themselves retain too many options. The much grander accomplishment of “settled” climatology recedes from there; and trying to end-run the weather with atmospheric chemistry is playing the naive child.
Prudence requires the very comprehension of our limits that the cry for “Science! Science!” forcefully denies.