Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Big and Little Science
Kate and I went to the Coolidge Corner Theater's "Science on Screen" series last night, in part because I wanted to get some use out of my membership there - I don't use my discount nearly as much as I do my Brattle one and had never seen Body Heat, but also because there was a lecture about the chemical and biological basis of sexual attraction paired with it. I like nifty science, and the subject is pretty personal to me. I think this is going to be the first Valentine's Day where I'm honestly and truly content with my romantic situation since my previous life, and it makes me a little nervous; after all, my first one was the result of some sophisticated targeted pheromones, and it's made me more than a little nervous about every relationship since.
One the lecture reminded me of is just what a black box all the weird stuff I've been subjected to actually is. When I was a kid, there was an anthology of John W. Campbell's early space operas in the town library, and I read it several times. I forget who wrote the introduction - I want to say it was Isaac Asimov, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't - but he rightly made the point that Campbell made a much better editor than writer, and his view of how science and engineering worked was absolutely absurd to anybody who had actually worked in the field. Things went from a peculiar phenomenon being observed in the lab to scientific breakthrough to prototype to an assembly line in what seemed like a couple weeks. The earthbound engineers at the start of the first book were moving planets at the end of the third.
These were great fun for me to read as a young boy, make no mistake. As a kid, I think you need to be fed this kind of grand literature, where utterly amazing things are possible and they can be done by a small group of people in a relatively short amount of time. It's what motivates kids to get into science and engineering; the realities of actual incremental progress and bureaucracy and the millions of false starts per breakthrough can come later, after they are too far along the road to just become accountants. Kate says it works much the same way for girls, only they get books about first love at first sight that don't mention unwanted advances, dates that just don't work out, divorce... I must say, I'm kind of glad that I never had to deal with whatever the female equivalent of the Heinlein juvenile was.
Anyway, to get back to what I was talking about, I have pesonally been the target of some chemicals that showed a pretty sophisticated understanding of how attraction among human beings worked, almost four years ago. But last night, the guy was lecturing about what experimental studies of ferrets tell us, and how much uncertainty there is about it, and how they hope to learn more. I got a chance to talk with him before the film, and he knew my name - as you might imagine, my case is known within his field, just like it is among neurologists and nanotech researchers. He had to admit that he regarded it (at least the "love potion" parts) with a bit of suspicion, though - it was fascinating if true, but nobody had been able to reverse-engineer the stuff I gave Maggie, to the point where they could even suss out the general principles it worked under. And absent working theories, it's just a very interesting hypothesis. So apparently I'm cold fusion.
It does lead me to wonder about a few things. Both the love potion and the nanotech are advanced, functional (even robust!) bits of technology. How did they come about? If the nanotech worked well enough to switch me four and a half years ago, how long were they in development before that? How many people had their brains fried in failed trials? And how did it stay under the radar, and then stay that way even after people started using it, at least so far as anybody I've talked to knows.
Disturbing. But, then again, as Kate and I were taking the bus home, we saw a sign in the window of a library branch about "what Harvard's 50-year plan means for us". It just boggles my mind that Harvard, or any organization, can sit down an make plans on that scale. I suppose if a university can plot what they're going to do with their real estate that far in advance, I suppose something like my situation and the near-total lack of an evidence trail leading to it makes a little more sense, if there's an organization with a grand enough vision behind it.
I hope it's not the U.S. Government. Or Harvard.