Monday, October 4, 2010

The cusp of coolness

One of the most popular genres of science writing since at least the age of Edison has been the "cusp of coolness" story, where the writer breathlessly tells us how some futuristic development is about to revolutionize our lives.

Here's the latest entry:
Although it may sound more sci-fi than sci-fact, a commercially developed jetpack is actually being eyed for mass production, with plans to eventually release it to the public. Let that sink in for a second. Jetpacks are real, and you might be able to buy one someday soon. Or at least see them among the skies.
I don't think we'll need the full second since jet packs have been around for between fifty and seventy years and you've been able to buy them for much of that time. The Germans had a prototype in WWII (Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has an excellent write-up on the subject). By the mid-Sixties they were flying over the World's Fair and showing up in Bond movies (yes, that was an actual Bell Rocket Belt).

But despite consuming countless man-hours and numerous fortunes (and prompting at least one kidnapping*) over what is now more than half a century, progress has been glacial. Jet packs are and will probably remain one of the worst under-performing technologies of the post-war era.

"Cusp of coolness" stories are annoying but they can also be dangerous. They give a distorted impression of how technological development works. Columnists and op-ed writers like John Tierney (whose grasp of science is not strong) come away with the idea that R&D is like a big vending machine -- deposit your money and promptly get what you asked for.

It's OK when this naive attitude convinces them to clear out space in their garages for jet packs. It's dangerous when it leads them to write editorials claiming that the easiest way to handle global warming is by building giant artificial volcanoes.

*from Wikipedia:
In 1992, one-time insurance salesman and entrepreneur Brad Barker formed a company to build a rockeltbelt with two partners: Joe Wright, a businessman based in Houston, and Larry Stanley, an engineer who owned an oil well in Texas. By 1994, they had a working prototype they called the Rocketbelt-2000, or RB-2000. They even asked [Bill] Suitor to fly it for them. But the partnership soon broke down. First Stanley accused Barker of defrauding the company. Then Barker attacked Stanley and went into hiding, taking the RB-2000 with him. Police investigators questioned Barker but released him after three days. The following year Stanley took Barker to court to recover lost earnings. The judge awarded Stanley sole ownership of the RB-2000 and over $10m in costs and damages. When Barker refused to pay up, Stanley kidnapped him, tied him up and held him captive in a box disguised as a SCUBA-tank container. After eight days Barker managed to escape. Police arrested Stanley and in 2002 he was sentenced to life in prison, since reduced to eight years. The rocketbelt has never been found.

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