In 1927 Lindbergh flew from NY to Paris. 45 yrs later, in 1972 we last walked on the Moon. 45 yrs later, in 2017 we… we… we…
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) January 16, 2017
Well … “we” did cut extreme poverty in at least half, which might be mankind’s most consequential achievement. In 1980, 42.6 percent of world population was living in extreme poverty, but because of economic reforms and an array of technological advances, 16.9 percent of world population now does—and the number is shrinking fast.
That’s better than any moon walk.
Maybe deGrasse Tyson is aiming this comment only at the United States. Since 1972, life expectancy here is up 11 percent (where it was always relatively high) and infant survival is up 69 percent. We’ve create technology that’s revolutionized food production so that most Americans will never know hunger.
Other than that, well, there are thousands of advances since 1972 more consequential than a moon walk. But since deGrasse Tyson is now a left-leaning entertainer, he seems to value large and centrally planned technological events over innovations that are both small and useful. Fact is, that at some point not that long ago, we turned our energies from creating impressive large-scale projects to making (really) tiny things that made life a lot easier for a lot of people.
Though, of course, having to pick small—or large—advances is a false choice; a zero-sum proposition peddled by those who tend to belittle contemporary advancement for ideological reasons. Tyson’s moon-landing comment—it’s just a tweet, yes—is part of a broader populist notion that romanticizes the 1950s and 1960s. From attempting to reinstitute unionism to restarting the space race, this kind of thinking has infected both sides of the political divide.
Anyway, technology is a continuum, so it’s often difficult pin down definitive moments of achievement. It’s not as if we invented space walks in 1972 or flying in 1927. It took decades. The idea that we don’t have great moments anymore is typically predicated on a lament about the lack of funding for large-scale state-run projects that technocrats can celebrate (though we have those, as well.)
The mini super computers, for example, “we” carry in our pockets in 2017 have outpaced even the most adventurous science fiction of 1972. It was created by thousands of people and scores of companies and institutions working separately over a prolonged time. Though younger people may not appreciate it, the cell phone (the idea is from 1973)—a device that houses your phone, personal computer (first introduced to the public in 1975), television, GPS (which became fully operational in 1995), texting (SMS was first used in 1992), two-way video phone, the Internet (what amounts to a library of all human knowledge; the TCP/IP was codified in 1992) and countless other items—is more valuable to a common person than the moon landing.
@neiltyson …landed a robot on an icy comet just 2 mi wide which hurtles through space at 50,000 mph over 300,000,000 miles away.
— Razor (@hale_razor) January 17, 2017
Fiber optics. Software that saves us millions of hours of paperwork. Media file compression that allows us to watch and information in ways never imagined. Antilock brakes. Digital cameras. 3-D printing. Virtual reality. You could go on and on.
I’ll take cornea laser surgery (first approved in 1985) or synthetic skin (first used in 1979) or the MRI machine (first used in 1977) over a moon walk. We may be on the verge of being able to restore sight to the blind. People suffering from common forms of cancer are twice as likely to survive for at least 10 years compared to patients diagnosed in the early 1970s. And since chronic hepatitis B and C cause 80 percent of all liver cancer, coming up with a hepatitis-B vaccine (first developed by Merk in 1981) is likely to be something “we” did. And the vaccine for meningitis or eradicating smallpox is something we did. The artificial heart (first used in 1982)—which saves the lives of 3 out of 4 people awaiting transplants—is something “we” did.
If we’re dealing in false choices, all this is worth mentioning.
Perhaps gene splicing isn’t as theatrical as moon walking, but it’s probably got a better upside for mankind. Nanotech advances may change our lives in ways that are still incomprehensible. What sort of crimes has DNA testing stopped? What sort of diseases will mapping the human genome (declared finished in 2003) help cure? How many millions will be saved by genetically modified crops from hunger?
For its time and place, the space race was an amazing and revolutionary moment. We are experiencing another moment right now. Robotics are changing the world. Self-driving car might eliminate traffic and save hundreds of thousands of lives we now lose to vehicular accidents. What about the Large Hadron Collider, which is measure Higgs boson, an integral particle for explaining how the universe can exist. Seems like a big deal, but, then again, I’m not astrophysicist, just an observer.