Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Telephone Sanitisers

Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy made a very British joke about the origins of the human species.

On a distant planet a terrible, if unspecified, disaster was looming. The population was divided into three parts: the scientists and thinkers, the doers (engineers, plumbers, businessmen), and the middlemen - advertising agents, telephone sanitisers and the like. The middlemen were sent out on a spacecraft and the rest promised they would follow. But the middlemen hadn't heard anything from them for a while... and then they crashed into the Earth.

While this rings true, in modern Britain, evolution meant that some people with enterprise developed. And what enterprise was shown here, in the cradle of the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions; the home of the Elizabethans who crossed in the Atlantic in ships the size of double-decker buses; the birthplace of the eighteenth-century Bulldogs and the mighty Victorians.

Unfortunately, it seems, they all buggered off, emigrated to Australia and the USA. Our national character now seems to be that of the people, in Adam's book, who haven't built a wheel yet because the Tincture Committee hasn't yet decided what colour it should be, though it has set up a focus group.

While we spend, for example, £300M for tattoo removal on the NHS, in America they produce genuine technical innovation by having fun.

If anyone missed the DARPA Grand Challenge, which was won this year, check out their website. A $2M cash prize was offered to the first organisation that managed to put a fully autonomous, full size vehicle through an arduous 132 mile desert course in less than 10 hours. Teams were organised in Universities, private companies, or just by enthusiasts; think Robot Wars with Humvees and 4x4s. It was won last year by Stanford University. The next competition will be in an urban environment. Two million dollars! An interpersonal facilitation development counselling team-building consultancy focus group wouldn't get out of bed for that kind of money. But DARPA got weird-looking vehicles, diesel smoke, unmanned jeeps crashing through rivers...

Now we have, or rather they have, the Space Elevator Games, with entrants like the University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team. And this one cost just $400,000 in prize money (which hasn't been won yet). The idea of a space elevator came from Arthur C. Clarke. It is likely to be a signature of technology sometime later this century, as another idea of his, geostationary satellites, have been for decades already.

And that's where the real tragedy of this lies. Clarke is, of course, an Englishman. Computers were developed to a significant degree by the British. The world wide web was designed by an Brit. The jet engine... There is enormous talent, enterprise and innovation in this country. We are not a nation of telephone sanitisers. But we are governed by them.

Last year, Gordon Brown made a speech in which he promised to make Britain a centre for science and technology. On the same day, Hull University announced it was going to close its Maths Department. The year before, when Exeter University announced the closure of its Chemistry Department, Sir Harry Kroto announced he was going to return his Nobel Prize for Chemistry in protest. We are going through an unprecedented collapse of science in particular, and of genuine education in general at the same time as we see a massive resurgence of religious fundamentalism and religious "education".

We cannot survive this. It is national suicide. It will impoverish us, diminish us, condemn us to a twilight of superstition and ignorance.

But we can fight back.

And one way, one small start, would be the announcement of a few small prizes - game show money - for technical achievement, but fun technical achievement. There's no better way to harness the ingenuity, time, expertise and enthusiasm of thousands than to offer, say, £2M for the first fully autonomous aircraft to perch on a scaffolding pole like a bird after completing an obstacle course. In the great scheme of public expenditure, this is less than peanuts. It is nothing.

But in our dreams, our hopes, and in our future, rebuilding our scientific heritage is everything. Labour has shattered it. They will continue to destroy for as long as they hold power. We can't really, on past performance, expect anything from the Tories except the dessicated, over-intellectualised management of national decline.

We deserve better. Where are we going to get it from?


Brian Dunbar said...

Do what we do - ignore the government as much as possible.

Peter Risdon said...

The operative phrase in that sentence is "as possible". It's sound advice, but comes from a freer country than mine.

Brian Dunbar said...

It's sound advice, but comes from a freer country than mine.

Time to leave.

I know that's not as easy as it sounds, but for all that I don't say that to be cavalier.

You speak English, our customs are not so much different. The only thing you might have immediate trouble with is looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic when you're crossing the street.

At least one of ancestors did, and he had it a much harder time of it than you will - he indentured himself for seven years on what was a howling frontier in the 1680s.

Peter Risdon said...

It's crossed my mind, Brian.