A Lovely Interview with Evernote

Earlier this month, Evernote asked me to participate in their “great writers” interview series. Though they might be premature in their (exceedingly kind) use of “great,”1 the interview itself was a lot of fun and, I hope, helpful to writers just starting out.

What’s your process for evolving an idea into something more?

Ideas are pretty useless in and of themselves. Everyone has ideas! I have to repress a cringe whenever someone says to an author, “I have a great idea for a book—say, maybe you could write it!” as though writing the book were a formality, and what was really needed was someone to come in and supervise with Great Ideas.

When I have an idea for something, I try to write it out. In other words, muddle through until I know whether or not there’s really an essay or book there. And when there’s not, I toss the idea and start over. (It hurts a lot to throw out a 25,000-word book proposal.) If the idea proves to have merit, I pitch it to whichever editor I think might be interested. The worst thing you can do is know that a story is weak, but sell it anyway. It adds tremendous pressure to the ensuing process.

Read the whole interview here. My sincere thanks to the lovely people at Evernote for thinking of me. And, having been sufficiently inspired, if you’d like a free month of Evernote Premium, click here.

1 One of my favorite lines on the subject comes from Rocky III, where Apollo Creed chides Rocky, saying, “You gotta remember now, you fight great but I’m a great fighter.”

Book Talk at Mental Floss

Most of my work for Mental Floss of late falls into one of two categories: books or space. Because these are my twin passions, I must say that I’ve never been happier with the work that I’m doing there. Here are some of the books I’ve written about for the site, each of which are highly recommended.

When Congress Puts NASA on Hold, Planets Don’t Wait

Today’s edition of the New York Times contains my very first op-ed for them, on how budgetary uncertainties harm the American space program.

The United States asks NASA to do an extraordinary amount with very little money. Explore Mars, document climate change, stop doomsday asteroids, find life on Europa — all for less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget. But budget uncertainties on Capitol Hill, including delays in federal appropriations legislation and temporary government shutdowns, measurably harm the American space program. Even the threat of a shutdown can have a far-reaching impact on scientific projects, often in unexpected ways.

Read the rest here. (Or go buy a copy.)

Thank you to Casey Dreier at the Planetary Society, who is infinitely patient and kind, and one of the smartest guys in the business.

UPDATE: Hello New York Times readers! You might also be interested in this piece I wrote for Vox earlier this year on the looming gap in outer planetary exploration.

Testing Rocket Engines

Last month I attended a NASA test of an RS-25 rocket engine. Even weeks later, I think about the event in awe and wonder. The A-1 test stand to which the engine was mounted is impossibly large. The B-2 test stand, which will eventually test an array of four RS-25s, is larger even still. The engine test itself was like experiencing what I can only describe as a peaceful apocalypse. The sound and reverberations and billowing clouds had the all the terrible power and spectacle of what I imagine the end of the world to be like, but there, at NASA Stennis Space Center, the force was put toward the cause of peace and the betterment of humankind. I’m not given to mawkishness about such things, but all I could think the whole time was: If we can do this, we can do anything.

The only other time I’ve ever felt that way was visiting the Great Wall of China—another impossible human achievement of breathtaking size, scope, and engineering genius. I feel fortunate to have seen two such wonders in a single lifetime.

I wrote a little about the test for Mental Floss:

It was magnificent. The engine was like an inverted volcano. White clouds billowed forth at 13 times the speed of sound, blasting so forcefully that even its component water vapor seemed confused and alarmed. The sound was like a sustained, rolling thunder that you could feel in your teeth, and its timbre dominated even your pulse. The experience was truly awesome in force and effect. The power and fury of the test was terrifying—and yet the RS-25 is perhaps the most peaceful product of the space age thus far. It’s not a weapon of war. It powers no ballistic missiles, nuclear or otherwise. It exists only for exploration and the betterment of humankind.

Read the rest here.

I’ve embedded a video below. It doesn’t come close to capturing the thing. The clouds you see billowing from the engine test stand are made of water vapor. The RS-25 burns liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen; the engine leaves behind an Earth as clean as it found it.

Image credit at the top of this post: Aerojet Rocketdyne.

What I Saw at the Pluto Flyby

This week I’ve been at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, where I am covering the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. It’s been humbling and inspiring to witness a landmark achievement in human history: the complete exploration of the classical solar system.

The Week: Our Golden Age of Space Exploration

It says so much about the nature of space exploration that one reflexively uses the pronouns “we” and “us” when discussing it. I can think of no other peaceful human endeavor where that is the case.

We didn’t map the human genome; scientists did. We did not discover the Higgs boson. Physicists get the credit. When Olympic world records are set, nobody watching from his or her couch says, “Well, it looks like we are faster now.” But we went to the moon and we’re looking for life on Mars. (Conversely, we invaded Afghanistan. We defeated the Nazis. We fought wars in Iraq and Vietnam. Perhaps the wonder of space exploration is the alter ego to the horror of war.)

Mental Floss: Ten Facts About New Horizons

New Moons Mean New Dangers

In 2011, New Horizons discovered a second moon orbiting Pluto (Kerberos), and a year later a third (Styx). That’s been both exciting and worrying. These moons lack the mass and gravity to keep debris caused by planetary collisions from flying into space, where they could potentially smash into the spacecraft. Debris doesn’t have to be big to be a threat: a piece the size of a grain of rice could prove catastrophic to the probe. Think of a rock hitting your windshield. Now imagine if you were driving 31,000 miles per hour.

Mental Floss: Seven Scientific Instruments New Horizons Uses to Study Pluto

The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, “is essentially a digital camera with a large telephoto telescope—only fortified to operate in the cold, hostile environs near Pluto,” according to the New Horizons team. LORRI is so powerful that on closest approach, it was able to resolve features as small as football fields. The instrument began snapping shots of the Pluto system at the start of 2015 and is responsible for pretty much every shot we’ve seen so far. The camera only takes black-and-white photographs; color filters were left out of the design in order to keep things simple, and to ensure an extremely high light-sensitivity level. (Light levels are 1000 times lower in the Pluto system than on Earth.) The Ralph instrument provides the color data for LORRI images.

The Week: The Scientists Who Conquered Pluto

We know well the way astronauts think because we’ve studied them for so long — lionized them, rightfully, in books and movies and on television. We understand the human adventure. We understand that astronauts train hard and while in space live in pretty miserable conditions. But we also understand the glory of being an astronaut. They are humanity’s ambassadors. They are exploring the final frontier. They’ve played golf on the moon! But what of these people — the New Horizons people, these spacecraft pilots and planetary scientists who study the outer reaches of the solar system? What can be made of them? Alice Bowman said the words, “We are outbound from Pluto.” Has a more breathtaking string of words ever been uttered?

(Image credit: NASA)

Tomorrowland and Atlas Shrugged

Tomorrowland is a beautiful, enjoyable film—they had me at Space Mountain—but it suffers from what seems like a straightforward problem of logic. The purpose of Tomorrowland (the city) is to act as a kind of sanctuary in a parallel-universe, where geniuses can to do their work unhindered by god, government, or society. The city they build is astonishing and wonderful and is flush with robots, androids, jet packs, and flying machines. Trouble starts when George Clooney’s character, Frank, builds a device to see the future of Earth (i.e. the “real world”). The people of Tomorrowland discover that doomsday is in our future, and efforts are immediately abandoned to recruit new “dreamers” to join their city. Tomorrowland eventually falls into disrepair.

(N.b.: This is never precisely explained. I realize that the city itself was never completed—that the future seen by Casey, the protagonist, is an advertisement for a city under construction—but this doesn’t explain the massive, very fully realized Tomorrowland that Frank does see. How was it built? Robots? Then why didn’t the robots continue to maintain the city even after the recruitment drive stopped? What happened to the people already there? They are still there, after all, because Nix (Hugh Laurie’s character) specifically says that even after Earth’s apocalypse, Tomorrowland’s residents will be just fine.)

After the hazy abandonment/decay of Tomorrowland, Nix sticks around and begins broadcasting a warning to the people of Earth: you’re doomed unless you change your ways. It’s important to note that Nix really does seem to want to save Earth. He’s baffled by our stupidity in the face of Armageddon, and dismayed that even when warned, we change nothing. We march resolutely toward 100%-certain doom. (The remainder of the film’s plot involves scrappy dreamers trying to stave off the apocalypse and restore Tomorrowland. You won’t be surprised to learn that they succeed.)

So here are a couple of questions: Taking Nix at his word that the people of Tomorrowland genuinely want to save the Earth, why don’t they go back and bring some of that magical technology with them? I understand why he would fight to keep the normies out of his paradise, but why not bring paradise to the normies? Those flying, city-building robots might be pretty useful in staving off the end of the world. Meanwhile, if Nix and the Tomorrowland gang don’t want to save the Earth, why do they keep broadcasting the (apparently sincere) warning?

One way to look at the film is as a parallel to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Casey, the central character, is Dagney. Athena plays the “Destroyer” role of John Galt. Nix is Galt. The city is Galt’s Gulch. The warning broadcast, which is central to the film’s plot, is Galt’s radio address. But Galt’s radio address isn’t a warning; it’s not intended to save society. Rather, it’s an explanation for his actions, and a call for others to join him in allowing society to fail. Meanwhile, Galt’s Gulch had three purposes: to build a new society founded on productive ability; to hide the men and women of productive ability from the rest of the world (thus denying their productivity to the rest of the world); to establish a beachhead from which a new civilization might rise. Galt wasn’t dealing in half-measures. He aimed to destroy the existing order. He wanted to “stop the motor of the world,” and he succeeded. (Atlas Shrugged is the only novel I can think of where the protagonists actively work to bring about the end of the world.)

But with respect to Tomorrowland, we’re left with two problems: 1. In recruiting the world’s inventors and geniuses to join him, Nix, like Galt, is implicitly starving the world of the very people who would be best-equipped to save it. But that is not his goal. 2. Knowing that the world is doomed (and giving up any hope of saving it), rather than attempt to find as many “dreamers” as possible to populate Tomorrowland, Nix sets Tomorrowland on a course of total isolation. It doesn’t take Nate Silver to see that this is demographic suicide. Ah, you might say. There’s the moral! That we’re all like moths to flames, genius and non-genius alike. But that also directly undermines the whole premise of the story: that we can change things by dreaming. It suggests instead that oblivion is coming regardless of who you are or how much you studied in school.

One might wonder, then, whether it’s not genius versus non-genius, but dreamer versus cynic. That’s arguable (it’s certainly suggested) but if dreamers are the key ingredient to change the future, why the hell was Tomorrowland built in the first place? If dreamers really could change the real world for the better, they never would have felt it necessary to withdraw. The wonder that is the city of Tomorrowland, in fact, is proof that dreamers cannot change the future. Here in the real world, the best dreamers can do is build new cell phones on which to smear around our facial grease. But in Tomorrowland, freedom, isolation, and a couple of decades result in geniuses and dreamers building hovering swimming pools, laser blasers, and transdimensional teleportation devices. From the start, Tomorrowland was an extremely cynical venture, but he results don’t lie: it was also an axiomatically correct one.

Finally, it might be suggested that perhaps Tomorrowland intends to somehow refute Atlas Shrugged. That were John Galt really to build his remote Objectivist paradise, he would eventually turn into Nix. I would argue otherwise simply because Galt had a plan and the clarity of purpose to see it through to the end. If Nix’s actual motive was to destroy humanity, to what end was he working? Eventual conquest? This is never suggested in the film. Rather, it’s pretty clear that he wants out completely, and is as worried and uncertain about what comes next as anyone else. So again I ask: why wasn’t he hustling to recruit Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and any number of real world geniuses before the mushroom clouds starting sprouting? In short, maybe the film is meant to be an affirmation of Atlas Shrugged. What does failure look like? Nix’s half-hearted effort. To see how to make it work, see John Galt.

An aside:

Very broadly, and perhaps if told over a much longer timescale, Tomorrowlandcould also be a retelling of Foundation by Isaac Asimov. The “time window” is Hari Seldon’s psychohistorical analyses; the Earth is Trantor; and Tomorrowland is Terminus. But this also implies a plan for the aftermath of Earth’s apocalypse, which Hugh Laurie seems not to have.

Image credit: TakeMeToTomorrowland.com