How To Make An Astronautical Engineer

Like quite a few aerospace engineering majors, I’m not really here for the aircraft material. Now, planes and helicopters are interesting in their own right, and the overlap between the two fields makes perfect sense historically. My disinclination to the aeronautical courses (which, at my school—and most others—represent the bulk of the curriculum) stems mainly from the fact that that’s not where I want to spend my working years, and college is too damn expensive to waste my time and my parents’ money on irrelevant material.

The major argument for the current arrangement is that space-focused students represent a minority of the department’s undergrads. While this is generally true, it is also misleading: the lack of astronautics classes deters many interested high-schoolers from applying. To magnify the distortion, a lot of the kids who do enroll jump ship for propulsion and fluid dynamics once they realize how few options are open to them.

In seeking a more balanced plan of study, let’s take things to extremes and consider what a dedicated astronautical engineering curriculum would look like. A few such departments do exist, sometimes even operating alongside aerospace engineering programs at the same institution. As the opportunities to work in strictly space-related roles expand in the coming decades, it may be worthwhile to rehabilitate aeronautical engineering as an independent major while astronautical engineering comes into its own.

Before we begin, I’d like to discuss a few issues with engineering curricula in general.

First, the approach to teaching math and science generally is deeply flawed. It makes absolutely no sense to teach so much algebra, trigonometry, vector geometry, and so on before so much as showing the poor kids a derivative. Supposedly our math curriculum was designed to churn out aerospace engineers after the Sputnik Crisis, but fear must have clouded their judgement, because hiding the beauty of mathematics behind semesters of drudgery seems to scare off more students than it’s worth. The fact is, it’s easier to buckle down and work on a problem when the kid appreciates its applications.

This is closely related to another criticism, which is that students get very little experience with the subject matter of their major until basic math and science requirements are complete. This is not only unpleasant for the student, but dangerous. It may be that the student will absolutely hate the field of engineering they’ve chosen to study, but won’t find out until two years of college tuition have already been sunk. By that point, it may be financially impossible to change majors.1

None of that would be a problem if public schools were capable of turning out educated adults, but it would seem that they aren’t, so it is. The same goes for reading, composition, and oral communication, to say nothing of economics, ethics, and epistemology.

But it’s not clear to me that you need multivariate calculus to learn the history of spaceflight. I would recommend integrating some sort of dedicated, big picture class into every semester of the underclassman curriculum.2 Considering how many of us arrived at our capstone class here without a coherent concept of airplane dynamics, this seems like a good addition to the baseline program. The vast majority of the curriculum I propose, though, would consist of substitutions. Only one or two classes would I remove outright.

Before we talk about that, though, let me zoom out for a moment and explain the major areas of aerospace engineering. (If you already know this, bear with me—I’m not writing solely for aerospace engineers, or even engineers generally.)

The five major areas of aerospace engineering are aerodynamics, controls, propulsion, structures, and design. (One could make the case for spinning out a separate focus on hardware from design and structures, but this is not generally recognized. A bit more on that later.) Design is somewhat distinct from the other areas as a synthesis that cannot stand alone. The degree to which this is true, of course, depends on just how abstract the dividing line between design and subsystem application is. In many cases, the entire question is quite fuzzy, which is fine. A lot of the best work happens in that region.

By number of workers, structures is the biggest area of aerospace engineering. On the order of 70% of aerospace engineers will work in structural analysis at some point in their careers. Oddly enough, this is one of the areas I have the most difficultly explaining to my non-engineer family members. Structures is….structures. It’s all the structure that holds an airplane together. It’s the frame of your house keeping the roof from caving it, it’s the frame of your chair keeping you off the ground. The aircraft structure holds the engines to the wing and the wing to the fuselage and the fuselage together.

Propulsion is easier to see: it’s the engines pushing the plane through the sky. These can be propeller or jets of various types, and less frequently, rocket engines. Spacecraft propulsion, of course, is almost entirely based on different forms of rocketry, though there are proposals to use jet engines to carry launch vehicles part of the way through the atmosphere.

Aerodynamics is the art of minimizing drag on the vehicle as it moves through the atmosphere, and—for aircraft—transforming a portion of the longitudinal force from the engine into lift. This is a bit more difficult to visualize,3 but relatively straightforward. It would have a much smaller role in an astronautical engineering curriculum, but a role nonetheless.

Controls is considerably more abstract. It combines aerodynamics, propulsion, and avionics to maintain static or dynamic stability for the vehicle, and make it do what the operator wants. Interestingly, this is both were hardware applications and systems engineering come in. It’s all about making the actuators, computers, and cabling play nicely together.

All of these fields would appear in an astronautical engineering curriculum, one way or another. With that out of the way, let me break down the approximate manner in which I would assemble it.

Firstly, I would substitute epistemology and economics for the worldly perspective requirements. Composition and oral communications would stay, though doing those in-house is obviously desirable.

Basic science and mathematics would necessarily stay, though I would personally prefer to see the course content described properly. For instance, instead of call it Physics I & Physics II, I would describe them as Mechanics and Electrophysics. The same goes for structural analysis—what we know here as Aerospace Structures I & II would be Determinate Structural Analysis and Indeterminate Structural Analysis, i.e. finite element analysis. That doesn’t necessarily communicate more information to freshmen, but it hardly communicates less. The rest of the structures curriculum is mostly fine—statics & dynamics, materials, and so on.

Propulsion would see significant changes away from air-breathing and towards vacuum-capable systems. Beginning with fluid mechanics and thermodynamics, we would explore spacecraft aerodynamics, rocket propulsion, and finally spacecraft propulsion. Aerodynamics is necessary for the controls curriculum, which would begin with basic orbital mechanics before moving on to spacecraft flight dynamics (including attitude control) and then move on to astrodynamics. A propulsion prerequisite might be useful, depending on the precise plan-of-study.

In the spacecraft systems focus area, we would begin with programming and electrophysics before moving on to circuits, spacecraft hardware, and instrumentation. These are some of the areas where I feel least confident in my engineering education thus far—despite spending a little time assembly a model airplane kit and the lab section of our electronics class, we didn’t really get much hands-on experience until the senior manufacturing project in Aerospace Materials & Processes. A dedicated hardware course might be worth the trouble.

Finally, the design courses. In most curricula, the various sequences culminate in a senior capstone. I question this approach. My current situation in airplane design is feeling dozens of disparate threads coming together immediately after the report block where I needed to understand them. I would vastly prefer to have this process happen earlier, so senior design could focus on skillful application.

My solution to this is to maintain some sort of integrating coursework throughout the undergraduate experience. My suggestion is to begin with an introduction to astronautics as a freshman seminar. This could progress to a history of spaceflight in the sophomore year. As a junior, I’d recommend an introduction to space system design and space mission architecture.

All told, my proposed curriculum looks something like this:

Astronautics Curriculum

Note the suggested technical electives listed. Students could spend their senior year taking these alongside the spacecraft design capstone. The full list would be much more extensive; these are just a few obvious areas which might be interesting to focus in on. Advanced spacecraft propulsion, structures, or astrodynamics classes would also be offered.

I may enumerate a semester-by-semester plan of study after a bit more thought, but right now I’m not sufficiently certain which classes should go in which semester. Balancing the workload is important, in my experience, to avoid burnout in otherwise perfectly capable students. Just as the high school can’t be depended on to teach students mathematics, we can’t rely on them to teach coping and study skills. A carefully-curated ramp up will be necessary.4

 

Perhaps that will change by the time that such a curriculum is widely needed, though. In any case, dedicated astronautical engineering won’t be a common major for several decades, at least. I’m writing this mainly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also to discuss what the nascent programs should be doing in the meantime. As you may have noticed, I think developing practical, economic spaceflight is very important. We aren’t there yet, not by a long shot, but I’d like to hit the ground running when the powers that be get the message.

Till then, however, it’s all about squeezing what astronautics material I can from a pretty aeronautical-focused program. Speaking of which, I should probably go finish that spacecraft telecommunications homework.

cassinifinale


1You will recall that I flunked out after two years of school. I returned at a different institution in the same major, and after another year found myself doubting the decision. If I could do it over, I would probably tell myself to study in engineering physics or mechanical engineering to pursue a more manageable and personally-relevant plan of study. By the time I’d realized this, however, I was absolutely not going to ask my parents to finance another two years of university just because I’d been ignorant going in. By now I’m entirely committed.

2Here at the University of Kansas, I would recommend dusting off that Global History of Aerospace Technology class, and getting it approved to fulfill the Cultural & Diversity Awareness goal. This would be such a logical and productive use of engineering credit hours that I cannot possibly expect it to be accepted by the Mickey Mouse departments.

3One of my structures professors once described aerodynamics as one of “the magic subjects” in comparison to his own field. I politely refrained to telling him that I found aerodynamics relatively transparent next to structures, which then even more than now felt like black magic. My suspicion is that this stems primarily from my extremely visual thinking style, which translates better to aerothermodynamics and orbital mechanics than to structural analysis.

4This is another point of criticism towards the program here: just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of things, the airplane of your academic performance slams into the concrete wall of junior year.

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Asimov on Entropy

Isaac Asimov’s science book View From A Height dedicates an entire chapter to explain concept of entropy. Assuming you have a decent background in the physical sciences, it does an excellent job, even better, I daresay, than my thermodynamics professor managed. So far the whole book has been a worthwhile read, but that essay in particular may be instructive to those interested in the topic.

Asimov concludes the chapter by presenting a very appealing hypothesis:

[E]ven if the universe were finite, and even if it were to reach “heat-death,” would that really be the end?

Once we have shuffled the deck of cards into complete randomness, there will come an inevitable time, if we wait long enough, when continued shuffling will restore at least a partial order.

Well, waiting “long enough” is no problem in a universe at heat-death, since time long longer exists there. We can therefore be certain that after a timeless interval, the purely random motion of the particles and the purely random flow of energy in a universe at maximum entropy might, here and there, now and then, result in a partial restoration of order.

It is tempting to wonder if our present universe, large as it is and complex though it seems, might not be merely the result of a very slight random increase in order over a very small portion of an unbelievably colossal universe which is virtually entirely in heat-death.

Perhaps we are merely sliding down a gentle ripple that has been set up, accidentally and very temporarily, in a quiet pond, and it is only the limitation of our own infinitesimal range of viewpoint in space and time that makes it seem to ourselves that we are hurtling down a cosmic waterfall of increasing entropy, a waterfall of colossal size and duration.

This is an intriguing idea. It suggests an alternative possibility for the fate of the cosmos than “eternal coldness”. Presuming that black holes don’t end up consuming all the matter in the universe, and proton decay turns out to not occur, then it might be possible to square a sort of steady-state theory with the existence of entropy.

Entropy isn’t merely disorder—though disorder is certainly a part of it. The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy does not spontaneously flow from cold areas to hot areas. Only by applying work can we force the flow in the opposite direction. Work, however, can only be extracted from the flow of energy from a hot reservoir to a cold one. Thermal efficiency is based on the temperature difference between the two reservoirs:

\eta_{th} = \frac{T_H - T_C}{T_H}

Where \eta_{th} is the thermal efficiency, and T_H and T_C are the temperature of the hotter and cooler reservoirs, respectively. As an example, if a warm reservoir is at 500 K and a cooler reservoir is at a mere 350 K, then the maximum thermal efficiency of a work-extracting cycle between these two reservoirs is 30%. (But don’t take my numbers for granted. Check it yourself!)

Note that the absolute quantity of energy in either reservoir is irrelevant. We are only concerned with their relative values. Work cannot be extracted by placing two equally hot reservoirs in contact, even if both are at 10,000 °C.

It is, of course, theoretically possible that random motion of individual particles might provide a very small about of usable work. However, this is exceedingly unlikely. Asimov gives an extreme example: could water in a pot freeze while the fire beneath grows hotter? Theoretically, yes. The laws of statistical thermodynamics do not forbid it. But even if the entire universe were filled with such pots, and we waited for eons and eons, we would not realistically expect to see a single pot significantly cool, let alone freeze.

As time goes on, we will approach universal thermal equilibrium. Extracting useful work, of any form, will become impossible. Work is energy, and life depends on a continuous source of energy, so all forms of life will perish.

This, naturally, can be a bit frightening to think about, especially if you are very young when you learn about it, as I was. A cosmological expiration date seemed like a very serious problem, because it meant that all of our efforts would necessarily be in vain. If the universe ends end regardless, social morality seems farcical. Rank hedonism looked like the only alternative, so my early attempts to reject

Objectivism helped me out of that trap, though its presumption of an inexhaustible universe remains problematic. But that doesn’t matter if morality is not social but personal, and the purpose of existence is Apollonian joy rather than a greater obligation.

Still, the possibility that the universe, even after heat death, can randomly reorganize will offer hope to the last mind that joy won’t go out of existence forever. A silent eternity would pass, and then…something. A universe appears again from darkness.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

I’m tempted by this hypothesis not merely because it offers hope for the universe, but also because it helps get around one of the frequently-asked unanswered questions about the Big Bang: what happened beforehand?

So far, we don’t know. Did time even exist before the Big Bang? Did conservation of mass-energy already apply? I haven’t studied the astrophysics to pretend to answer such questions.

Random reordering gets around this issue. The universe we know is a ripple is the wider open of equilibrium particles. Entropy is maximized. Everything is in the lowest possible energy state. By chance, some of this matter happened to organize itself. Net entropy will now continue to increase, so I think this is allowed.

Since the time for a “dead” universe to randomly form an orderly patch of significant size must be incredible, it would be no surprise if the photonic evidence of previous ordered periods had been entirely absorbed or diffused. Photons, being massless, don’t decay, but in such a long period would no doubt either be absorbed by the near-equilibrium particles. The remainder would be spread out over such a large area that the number of photons are simply swamped by more recent light. No instruments could possibly detect them.

But just because a hypothesis would be personally comforting does not forgive a lack of evidence. We should seek contradicting evidence for all hypotheses, regardless of our feelings toward them. Falsification is how science works.

Does random reordering fit the evidence we’ve already gathered about the early universe?

I’m little more than a layman, but generally speaking, the answer is: not really.

We have a pretty good picture of everything that happened more than a second after the Big Bang, and for a good while before that. A lot is based on astronomical data, such as the cosmic background data gathered by COBE, WMAP, and Planck. The remainder comes from particle accelerator experiments, from which physicists can build up models that extrapolate back even further.

The current theories don’t look very much like the result of randomly reshuffling baryons or leptons. It looks like a lot matter being created ex nihilo, with somehow antimatter being in the slight minority. Possibly a reshuffling at a much lower scale occurred, well after proton decay and whatnot evaporate the particles we’ve come to expect—I have an idea about how that might work, but I won’t burden you with more unwarranted speculation.

More study is clearly needed: better space telescopes and more powerful particle accelerators to give us data, faster supercomputers to process it, maybe some mathematical breakthroughs. It will probably take awhile to get a better estimate on the odds, but until then, I would put a low prior on the likelihood that our universe is a temporary reprieve from heat-death.

wmap-2012-results

Full-sky image of the cosmic microwave background, gathered over nine years by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.

Source: NASA/WMAP Science Team

However, there is a bigger philosophical question here: a reorganization hypothesis does not explain the origin of the universe, it just moves the cosmological problem up a step. Our universe being a mere ripple on a larger heat-dead ocean doesn’t tell us where that ocean came from. Did that universe have a Big Bang? Is it cyclical? Is it Steady-State? We still have to answer the same questions, and now we have less data!

(Of course, if it does turn out to be true, then we’ll just have to make do with less data. But that’s a methodological question.)

Trying to explain why there is something at all isn’t necessarily a hard question, but to explain why existence started to exist 13.8 billion years ago is a bit trickier. At this point, perhaps the simulation hypothesis is a decent pseudo-explanation. You can’t make very many predictions with it, so I wouldn’t call it a real explanation. That said, it does manage to constrain our anticipation to some degree. And there is some evidence for it.

Whatever reality is, we’ve still got at least some distance further to walk on the path to Truth. It’s tempting to take a short-cut through speculation and a priori arguments, but those are distractions. If we want to be sure, we have to do things right. Proposing hypotheses is part of that process—but so is rejecting them. As tempting as random reorganization is, I’d be happy to reject it with a little counterevidence.

Cassini and Me

Early this morning, while I lay sleeping, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It had been in space over twenty years, and at Saturn for over thirteen.

PIA21895_ImpactSite_FigA_FINALIMAGE_2

The last image transmitted by Cassini, about 15 hours before impact.

Like the Galileo spacecraft before it, mission controllers intentionally configured Cassini to deorbit when it reached the end of operational life. Once the supply of maneuvering fuel is exhausted, there’s no way to control a spacecraft’s trajectory. Cassini would, eventually, crash into one of Saturn’s moons.

This isn’t a problem in-and-of itself—we don’t have much compunction about littering the Solar System with terrestrial debris. But we wouldn’t have any control over which moon, and that is a problem.

One of Cassini’s big discoveries was that Enceladus has liquid water plumes coming from its south pole. Both Enceladus and Titan (which is loaded with organic and pre-biotic molecules) could be potential abodes for life. Given that we can’t perfectly guarantee our spacecraft are sterilized of Terran microbes, disposing of Cassini in Saturn’s atmosphere is better than risking planetary contamination. The final, ring-grazing orbits concluded with a fly-by of Titan, a distant interaction robbing Cassini of just enough mechanical energy to send it into clouds below.

I agree with that logic, but the decision is bittersweet. In many ways, Cassini was the first probe that I followed through its entire science mission. I was paying attention when Cassini arrived, when the Huygens lander touched down on Titan, when the plumes were found on Enceladus, when the hexagonal storm was spotted at Saturn’s north pole. The other real contender for that title would be the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, but the latter is still operating. Cassini, as of this morning, is over.

chesley bonestell titan

This famous Chesley Bonestell painting of Saturn from the surface of Titan greatly anchored my expectations for the Huygens probe.

The joy of discovery, however, is far from finished. Unless NASA finally comes around to nuclear propulsion or outer-planet aerocapture there won’t be many more Saturn probes in my lifetime, but most of Cassini’s results still haven’t reached my eyes. Even the Huygens probe, which only operated for a few hours during descent and landing, probably has some pictures I haven’t yet laid my hands on. And that’s before we consider the data from other instruments.

Space science, you see, isn’t just about snapping the prettiest photographs—though that’s certainly a part of it. We’re gathering information to test existing models of reality, and to begin the process of building new ones. Some will be refinements to our existing ideas, and some will be new notions entirely. When a scientist in twenty years has an idea about the way gas planets or their moons behave, they’ll have a wealth of information waiting to validate it with.

cassinifinale

Artist’s rending of Cassini at Saturn. Note the high orbital inclination.

But there’s a lot of scientific value in those beautiful images Cassini sent back to us, too. Every kilo counts, and we didn’t cart those cameras to Saturn for the hell of it. We sent them to understand the planet’s atmosphere, its rings, its moons. We’ve learned so much we didn’t even know to ask about in 1997. Those pictures give us a better perspective on the science, and on our place in the universe.

Even the picture I’ve been using a personal motif the last couple years, of Earth seen from under the rings, is a Cassini image. Space exploration lets us see the view from a height, of our planet, of ourselves, and of our universe. This mission had to end, but it didn’t have to happen in the first place. We didn’t have to expand our knowledge and perception, because there’s no cosmic law dictating humanity choose wisdom over ignorance. We chose to send Cassini-Huygens to Saturn, and I’m very glad that we did.

Book Review: Life in the Universe

Life in the Universe was the assigned textbook for the astronomy class I took in the fall of 2015. The course is titled the Quest for Extraterrestrial Life, and is sometimes taught by retired astronaut Dr. Steven Hawley. Another professor taught it that semester, but I really can’t complain about that—my issues with the course mainly came from the fact that it was open-enrollment. The majority of the term covered material I already knew, and we never got to the more interesting questions. But that’s my fault for dabbling in astrobiology.

The textbook is great for this purpose, however. Bennett and Shostak don’t assume much prior knowledge of astronomy, chemistry, or biological science. The first several chapters are a crash course on the history of the field and the relevant background material. For those who want to learn more about science and don’t know where to be begin, this book might be a good introduction.

But the book does get into the minutiae of estimating the odds of alien neighbors. It looks at the habitability of the planets and major moons of the Solar System, both now and in the past, and then moves on to discuss (what was then) the state of exoplanet research.

What makes a planet habitable is a complicated question. Even on our single planet, where every organism shares the same general biochemistry, environments in which one species thrives can be instantly fatal to another. We have to constrain the search space.

Bennett and Shostak look primarily at carbon-based life using water as its solvent, i.e. life as we know it. They offer justification for this focus, but I’m not entirely convinced. It’s especially weird when contrasted with their willingness to argue that we should take an optimistic stance towards the possibility of life overcoming any given obstacle.

To be clear, lifeforms which use something other than carbon as a base-structure would have more trouble evolving. Carbon is wonderful because it can easily bond with up with other molecules, and is conveniently small. Science fiction writers sometimes swap out our biochemical components with elements from a row down on the periodic table, ignoring the fact that those elements are larger and thus less electronegative. In layman’s terms, such molecules aren’t going to form as easily and will be less stable. That’s not so good for life.

Similarly, using other solvents than water presents some issues, because water has an unusually wide liquid temperature range, even for other polar molecules. This is a product of hydrogen bonding, polarity, and molecular weight. Almost any other conceivable solvent trades off at least one of these.

The same problem repeats for all the other chemicals in our bodies. There is good reason to focus on “life as we know it”. What I find harder to justify is the assumption that life won’t encounter very many major obstacles on the path to intelligence.

First and foremost is the fact that evolution doesn’t move in a straight line. Intelligence was not an end-goal for evolution. Even once intelligence developed, there wasn’t any rule that said we should develop modern technology. That has been the general trend since the development of farming, but by no means inevitable. Suppose a second round of glaciation had hit around 8,000 BCE. Agriculture would have been abandoned, and later selection pressures might have bred the genes for intelligence out of the population. Who knows how many species that’s happened to in the history of Earth, let alone across the galaxy.

Life isn’t pursuing complexity—complexity is often a cost which requires immediate justification. Inventing a wing is easy; evolving a wing is hard, because each intermediate step needs to provide a positive benefit to the organism, too.

Second, abiogenesis. We have just one example of life developing, and we’re not entirely sure how it happened. We have a good picture of the biochemistry that was probably involved, much of which would have occurred before the first cells came into existence. We’re pretty sure it involved RNA replicators, but that’s still an unclear picture.

On Earth, life developed about a billion years after planetary formation, which is pretty early in the grand scheme of things. This suggests that life can emerge from non-life pretty easily in the conditions that existed on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago.

But how common are those conditions? What percentage of rocky planets in the habitable zone will have that sort of environment for a sufficiently long time for life to develop? What percentage of those planets will stick around long enough for complex life to evolve? Intelligent life?

This is where I found the book’s analysis lacking. It took three billion years for life on Earth to develop complexity and we still don’t entirely know why that changed so suddenly. There’s a number of possible explanations: a mass-extinction eliminating competition, planetary glaciation eliminating competition, development of eyes or teeth causing runaway competition, the evolution of aerobic organisms, the formation of the ozone layer making surface environments more habitable—the list goes on. It’s not even clear that the Cambrian Explosion was an explosion. Perhaps it’s just an artifact of an incomplete fossil record.

At least weak evidence exists, however, of complexity being a hard step along the road to intelligence. The fact that so many explanations have been suggested to me suggests that perhaps multiple factors were actually at play.

I would go so far as to postulate that an additional term should be added to the Drake Equation to account for this fact, but that post will have to wait a few months at least.

The book concludes with a discussion of the Fermi Paradox. For those who don’t know, the Fermi Paradox comes from a question asked by the famous nuclear physicist: “Where is everybody?” Considering all the evidence that Bennett and Shostak had marshalled above, why can they not point to any real examples of extra-terrestrial intelligence?

enrico fermi

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi

Many answers are possible, which they explore in reasonable detail. Perhaps the strongest argument is that interstellar travel is extremely difficult (and we haven’t sent enough interplanetary probes to effectively assess the likelihood of non-intelligent life in our Solar System). The aliens are out there, but they won’t be coming here. Odds are that we won’t be going there, either.

These are intriguing ideas, which I’d hoped to learn a lot about. Life in the Universe is a decent introduction to them, but once again doesn’t discuss the topic in adequate depth. I would recommend it, then, as only an introductory text. There’s probably better astrobiology books out there, and I look forward to reading them.

The single most frustrating aspect of the book, however, was the authors’ expectation that readers wouldn’t take the material seriously. Almost every chapter has a dedicated section for taking pot-shots, fair or not, at some famous works of science fiction. Now there’s certainly a degree to which we must remove misconceptions before the truth can succeed, but there’s also a risk of anchoring. I’m not convinced that the trade-off was worth it.

Even in the final chapter, by which point the reader is, presumably, sufficiently credulous to believe what the relevant PhDs are saying, they’re still on the defensive, even about phenomena as real as anti-matter. It was frankly embarrassing to read, but fits pretty well with the mood of the class. One of the rewards of reaching higher-numbered courses is that everyone takes the material halfway seriously. I don’t suppose I’ll ever study astronomy at that level, but who knows. The future is long and full of possibilities.

LifeInTheUniverse

The Debt I’ll Always Owe

September 2 is a recurring date in Atlas Shrugged. The novel opens on that day, and significant scenes occur on it during the following years. To my knowledge, it carries no particular meaning outside the plot, but it has become an occasion for fans of the book to celebrate their love for it. It seems only fitting that I tell my own story about it today.

I first read Rand’s novel in high school. I was fifteen, trying to figure out the world, and had no idea what I was getting into. Heck, I though Atlas Shrugged was a book about conservatism, of all things!

But I had a record of finishing the books I took to summer camp well before the week was over, so I took the doorstop with me. That was a smart choice; it came home with me unfinished. That same summer my Dad and I went to Florida Sea Base, and Atlas Shrugged came along. It came back, and I was still not done. My memory here isn’t perfect, but it took almost the entire summer to complete.

I spent a good deal of the next few months rereading various parts, though I didn’t commit to reading it again, cover to cover, until last summer. I didn’t agree with everything in it then, and still don’t now. (I got very close at some points in the years between.) But I was reveling in new-found knowledge and meta-knowledge.

Prior to Atlas Shrugged, I couldn’t express how incoherent the surrounding zeitgeist was. Blatant contradiction was everywhere, but no one seemed to see or care about it. (Bringing this problem to the attention of adults went badly, or worse.) The only philosophy presented to me back then was either post-modernist claptrap in the same vein, or religious meanderings I wasn’t ready to reject.

Retrospectively, expecting the schools to provide me with an intellectual education at that young age was hyper-optimistic. School’s aren’t focused on outliers like me. They’re trying to keep a thousand hormone-ridden adolescents with underdeveloped brains, shoved into far too small a space, from killing and kissing each other. Conveying a coherent vision of the world is far too much to ask1.

None of that allayed the tremendous cognitive relief of seeing with fresh eyes. I have a philosophical structure laid out before me, running from metaphysics though epistemology to ethics and politics. The false binaries were swept aside, unnecessary guilt and pain shown to be just that. Atlas Shrugged began my slow process of learning to think.

Even if I was once an Objectivist, I don’t think I’d qualify as one now. That’s not what I mean by this post. I doubt I’ll ever be a Objectivist properly2, and I’m fine with that. Concrete beliefs aren’t the debt I’m talking about.

The debt I’ll always owe to Ayn Rand is teaching me about philosophy. Sure, I went on to read The Fountainhead and many of her other books, and agreed with them. But I’d read and agreed with plenty of other books before. Hers were the first which made me really understand.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Most people go through their lives without significantly integrating their beliefs. This isn’t necessarily crippling, but it can be. Contradictory goals can hamstring your ability to pursue any of them. I know that my past selves wouldn’t have been able to get this far without intelligently identifying values worth the trouble of pursuing. I worry that many of the people in my life have chosen ones that won’t make them happy. The jury is still out but the prosecution has a lot of evidence.

No matter the verdict, no matter what my future selves believe—the road will have started here. Ayn Rand taught me to think about the structure of my beliefs; how I obtain them, how they relate to one another. She wasn’t my only teacher, neither the first nor the least, but the most critical4. Atlas Shrugged helped me become a self-aware human being.

atlas-shrugged


1That’s not an excuse for presenting an incoherent vision, however, which is what a number of my educators chose to do. Thankfully, that had largely dropped off by the time I read Atlas Shrugged, but never quit entirely.

2I might, one day, be a friendly critic3 of Objectivism, but I’ve a lot of reading to do before such a moniker could apply.

3By “friendly critic”, I mean something like Nathaniel Branden. Former members make better criticisms to the movement than most others, because they either agree with the basic premises, or at least understand where Objectivists are coming from. (Arguing about Objectivism’s tenets on this post will be taken as affirmation that you haven’t read all the footnotes.)

4A major goal of my writing is to provide a similar catalyst to my friends and family, while clarifying my own thoughts. That said, I can hardly claim to be on Rand’s level.

Book Review: The Fountainhead

[This is a much more traditional review that what I usually write, so there will be considerable spoilers for The Fountainhead (and a few lesser ones for Atlas Shrugged and We The Living). Discussion of abuse and what constitutes consent. Additionally, Brandenite criticism of Rand’s writing style.]

To date, I haven’t found a good longform introduction to Objectivism, so I’m forced to recommend Atlas Shrugged for those wanting a comprehensive introduction.

That said, I found reading The Fountainhead very instructive on the finer details of what a selfish life actually looks like. Atlas Shrugged addresses those questions, but does so subtly. Many readers (including my younger self) end up overlooking them. Sometimes it’s just better to say what you mean.

The Fountainhead contrasts the life of a genuine individualist, Howard Roark, with that of several non-individualists. Roark is an architect, who worked his way through three years of college before being expelled for insubordination. He goes to work for Henry Cameron, a disgraced builder whose modernist style and blunt attitude eventually destroyed his practice.

fountainhead original cover

One of Roark’s classmates is Peter Keating, whose mother paid his tuition, in part by running the boarding house where Roark lived. Peter is vain and full-of-himself, the sort of person one might call an individualist—but Keating is a phony. Roark’s purpose in architecture is to design and construct buildings to his liking. Fame and fortune mean very little to him. Reputation will garner clients, and money allows him to stay in practice, but his ambition is entirely impersonal.

Keating has no ambition of his own. He doesn’t want to design buildings; he wants to be known as a great builder. He wants to be famous to the sake of fame and relishes every scrap of admiring attention. His only selfish goal is to marry a young girl named Katie, whom he met in school and whom he forgets about for months at a time. But spending time with her appears to be the only thing that makes him genuinely happy.

Alas, their relationship is not to be. Katie is supported by her uncle, Ellsworth Toohey, a public intellectual and “humanitarian”. Toohey steers their relationship to failure, not through outright opposition—oh no, he approves! He totally approves! Romantic love is old-fashioned, of course, but charming in its own way. And through such snide comments, sows the seeds of doubt in Keating’s vulnerable mind.

In Rand’s other books, there’s no explicit villain. Toohey is the exception: he is her idea of evil incarnate. Other antagonists are weak, incoherent. They don’t fully realize where their ideas lead. Toohey knows exactly what he’s doing. The only other possible example is Fred Kinnan, a union boss in Atlas Shrugged, but unlike Toohey, Kinnan doesn’t lead the charge.

With full intention and awareness, Toohey is trying to stunt the intellectual growth of any person with potential, for the sole purpose of gaining power over them. After years of abuse, Toohey completely destroys what small shadow of self ever existed in poor Keating. The once-famous architect lies dependent at Toohey’s feet, and listens as he hears precisely how he’s been broken.

No such person exists in reality. Rand knew this, of course—there’s no one person singlehandedly destroying the modern world, or else a Steven Mallory might succeed. But there isn’t, so one couldn’t.

Steven Mallory is a sculptor, who takes a shot at Toohey and misses. Toohey must have known what that meant, because he defended Mallory at the trial. He refuses, he says, “to be an accomplice in the manufacturing of martyrs.” A martyr would have been much more dangerous than a poor, struggling artist.

Mallory is struggling, much the same way that Roark struggles for self-sufficiency in the building industry. After Henry Cameron’s physical and financial health force him into retirement, Roark accepts Keating’s offer to work under him at the firm Francon & Heyer. Roark insists on doing purely structural work, because of his philosophical disagreements on style. But one day, a client asks Francon to do a building in Cameron’s style, and Francon suggests Roark take a stab at it. But not purely in Cameron’s style, of course—the firm has a reputation to maintain, and unflinching modernism doesn’t serve that end.

Roark refuses to compromise his artistic integrity, and gets fired. For months, he tries to find another draftsman job, eventually securing employment with the eclectic John Erik Snyte. Unlike most of the other architects in New York, Snyte has no stylistic preference: he’ll build anything, but it will be terrible. Roark was allowed to design buildings with integrity, which Snyte then remixed with features from his other draftsmen’s proposals.

That comes to a change, when Mr. Austen Heller, a notable writer, decides to build a country home. Heller had already rejected several other firms for the commission. He has a site selected and a basic notion of what he wants built, but can’t articulate exactly what he’s looking for. Snyte, desperate to get the commission, tells his draftsmen to spare no effort in getting the design right.

Roark’s design “wins”—it’s the base which Snyte adapts to make a “respectable” structure. Heller is shocked. It’s so close, he says, but not there. It’s not integrated.

Those words are a hint. Roark snatches the fancy watercolor from the stand and goes to work on it, penciling the original design over Snyte’s chimera. Snyte fires Roark, and Heller hires Roark, on the spot. Thereafter he is an independent architect. A few commissions follow, before money and public interest runs out. Roark doesn’t play the socialite’s game, which is the primary way of garnering clients. Moreover, he refuses to build in historical styles, which loses many of the trickle that comes his way.

roark building model

He’s forced to leave the business for a time, working as a manual laborer until he’s tracked down by Roger Enright, an entrepreneur who wants to build a luxury apartment building. Roark returns to New York and resumes work, gaining more impressive commissions as his name and style reach the wider public. And Ellsworth Toohey.

Toohey realizes Roark constitutes a threat to his program, and sets out to destroy him. He decides to make Roark really famous. One of Toohey’s many intellectual conquests is an old, superstitious businessman named Hopton Stoddard. Toohey needs Stoddard’s wealth to build a charity home, but Stoddard, fearing the afterlife, wants to erect an ecumenical temple instead. Toohey suddenly reverses his position—provided Roark is the architect.

Stoddard quickly agrees. Roark is skeptical, because Stoddard is the exact opposite of the sort of person he’ll get along with. But Stoddard insists that Roark build a temple to the human spirit, in his style. Roark can’t force himself to say no, even though it feels fishy.

The plan calls for a statue, and Roark choses Mallory to sculpt it. They’ve never met before, and Roark has a difficult time getting ahold of him. It turns out that Mallory admires Roark’s buildings, and doesn’t want to spoil them by meeting the man. Artists always disappoint him, Mallory explains, because they never live up to their works.

Of course, Roark does live up to his buildings, but Mallory provides another interesting foil. Roark goes through life without being hurt by the world’s senselessness, but Mallory is hurt by it. Mallory is a weak and sympathetic Randian protagonist, perhaps akin to Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged.

Nathaniel Branden commented on Roark’s character as such:

In preparation for this presentation, I re-read the opening chapter of The Fountainhead. It really is a great book. I noticed something in the first chapter I never noticed before. Consider these facts: The hero has just been expelled from school, he is the victim of injustice, he is misunderstood by virtually everyone, and he himself tends to find other people puzzling and incomprehensible. He is alone; he has no friends. There is no one with whom he can share his inner life or values. So far, with the possible exception of being expelled from school, this could be a fairly accurate description of the state of the overwhelming majority of adolescents. There is one big difference: Howard Roark gives no indication of being bothered by any of it. He is serenely happy within himself. For average teenagers, this condition is agony. They read The Fountainhead and see this condition, not as a problem to be solved, but as a condition they must learn to be happy about — as Roark is. All done without drugs! What a wish-fulfillment that would be! What a dream come true! Don’t bother learning to understand anyone. Don’t bother working at making yourself better understood. Don’t try to see whether you can close the gap of your alienation from others, at least from some others, just struggle for Roark’s serenity — which Rand never tells you how to achieve. This is an example of how The Fountainhead could be at once a source of great inspiration and a source of great guilt, for all those who do not know how to reach Roark’s state.

Mallory doesn’t display the same easy bliss, even down to the drugs (he’s pretty drunk when Roark finally tracks him down). I maintain that minor characters make Rand’s work, yet Branden is making a very important criticism. The Fountainhead leaves out a lot of the instructions, beyond “find someone who’s happy and rational who can give you emotional support”. That’s not exactly easy for the sort of person who’ll identify with Objectivism to begin with.

Steven Mallory is an excellent character, and it’s sad that he doesn’t get more time on-page, but the fact is that the story is still Roark’s. Too bad Ayn Rand didn’t ghostwrite fan fiction. I’d read the hell out of that.

Where were we? Oh right, the Hopton Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit. Roark wants to include a statue, a disrobed woman, as its centerpiece. He leaves the choice of model up to Mallory, but makes a suggestion: Dominique Francon.

(I knew I was temporizing for a reason.)

Dominique Francon is an editorialist at the same newspaper which employs Ellsworth Toohey, the New York Banner, and is also the only daughter of Guy Francon, Keating’s boss. Mr. Francon owns a granite quarry in Connecticut, where Roark ends up working for several months before the Enright House is constructed.

During that same summer, Dominique takes a vacation from the paper at her family’s house on the same premises. One day she decides to go down and look at the quarry, because the men will be suffering down there and she has a thing for that. Among the various men at work is Roark, with whom she exchanges Meaningful Glances™ and a few words.

dominique francon quarry

Seen here: a Meaningful Glance™

She comes up with a pretext to invite him to her house for some manual labor (replacing a tile she’d scratched for that very purpose). Roark agrees, states that the tile clearly isn’t damaged, breaks it properly, removes it, and has the appropriate replacement ordered. When it arrives, he sends one of his coworkers to install it. Dominique confronts Roark about this, and he replies that surely it didn’t matter which of her father’s manual laborers did the work.

At this point, it’s time for that discussion of consent I warned you about above.

Roark comes to Dominique’s house the next night and has very rough sex with her. Dominique later describes this as rape, though Ayn Rand insisted that, if their first time was rape, it was “rape by engraved invitation” and condemned the crime outside of fiction.

In the context of the novel, however, both characters are blessed by authorial omniscience. Dominique wanted to sleep with Roark, and he knew it. Meaningful Glances™ may be sufficient to communicate consent in books, but certainly aren’t in the real world. I think Ayn Rand would have readily acknowledge that, but most of her critics wouldn’t acknowledge that she’d acknowledge that.

Roger Enright calls Roark back to New York almost immediately thereafter, which complicates how their relationship might develop. Dominique is clearly conflicted. She considers leaving her job at the newspaper, but decides against it, because quitting would be too easy. She only knows Roark by the nickname “Red”, and figures she’s unlikely to ever encounter him again.

That isn’t the case.

When images of the Enright House reach print, Dominique admires them, but refuses to write about the building. She tells Toohey that “[a] man who can conceive a thing as beautiful as this should never allow it to be erected” and that writing about it “would be repeating the crime.”

Roark, meanwhile, is rebuilding his practice. In addition to the Enright House, he’s approached with another offer. Austin Heller insists that Roark come with him to a party hosted by Kiki Holcombe, the wife of the Ralston Holcombe, the president of the Architect’s Guild of America. Attending her party would help secure the commission, because the man in question is the socialite type. Roark doesn’t plan to go, but changes his mind upon hearing Dominique will be there.

Heller introduces them and they carry on a very polite conversation, even after Heller is pulled away. Once the conversation ends, Dominique and Toohey both watch him intently, but with opposing purposes.

The public doesn’t realize that. Both excoriate Roark in print, Dominique loudly and Toohey quietly. Or at least, it looks that way. Dominique’s articles appear, at first glance, like insults to Roark’s buildings, but a closer reading shows that they’re actually insulting the surrounding city, because the city isn’t good enough for the buildings.

To the public eye, Dominique Francon has a feud with Howard Roark. She actively seeks out his clients and tries to dissuade them, usually convincing them to hire Peter Keating. Then, on those nights when she’s taken away a commission, she goes to sleep with Howard Roark.

Objectivist scholars can probably express this more clearly, but the general idea here is that Dominique loves Roark and all the things he represents, but doesn’t believe they can exist in the real world, so does her best to destroy them quickly and thoroughly. Rand doesn’t agree with this supposition, but it certainly makes for an interesting relationship dynamic.

No one knows that Dominique is Roark’s mistress, and it shocks everyone when she agrees to pose for the Stoddard Temple statue.

Roark, Mallory, and Dominique spend a pleasant year working on the temple and statue, with additionally company from Mike, an electrician whom Roark has been friends with since he worked for Francon & Heyer. Mike manages to work on almost every structure Roark builds and helped get him the job in the granite quarry.

Things come to a sudden end when Hopton Stoddard arrives in New York after his year-long vacation. He had visited dozens of religious monuments around the world, and expected something similarly dramatic. What he found was, well, exactly what it said on the tin—not a monument to God or spirits, but to mankind. Roark’s Hopton Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit is not at all what he was expecting, and Toohey easily manipulates Stoddard into suing.

The prosecution calls dozens of witnesses, with Dominique as their pièce de résistance. She makes one of her typical ambiguous statements, which defends Roark while sounding like an attack.

Roark calls no witnesses and asks no questions. When the time comes, he lays out ten photographs of the Stoddard Temple and says, “[t]he defense rests.” Unsurprisingly, this does not win the case.

Dominque feels terrible about her role in the trial, but also treats it as sort of a victory condition. (This isn’t an entirely incorrect conclusion: Roark builds nothing in New York for the next several years; his firm survives on commissions elsewhere.) She intentionally gets herself fired from the newspaper and offers to marry Peter Keating. She hates Keating and sees this as a form of punishment, but endeavors to be a dutiful society wife. Unfortunately, though, he had finally promised to marry Katie that same day. Keating’s desire for social approval thus destroys his last chance for real happiness.

Katie goes on to be the director of children’s occupational therapy at the Hopton Stoddard Home for Subnormal Children.

Less than two years later, Keating finds himself dreadfully unhappy. His standing as an architect is diminishing without Dominique’s activism, and the Great Depression arrived just in time to make things that much worse. His marriage is equally unhappy—Dominique has managed to suppress her entire personality, and in a stunning turn of events it’s better to have a person for your spouse than a cardboard cutout. Even sex with her, which he’d once wanted, brings no pleasure. Dominique was once unresponsive to his advances, then disgusted after meeting Roark, and then quickly returns to complete indifference after their marriage.

Ellsworth Toohey is aware of all this, naturally, and has a terrible idea. Enter Gail Wynand, the megalomaniacal owner of the New York Banner.

Wynand has a reputation for impulsiveness and a temper, but is a skilled business executive. His papers lead all sorts of crusades in print, and his real estate empire spreads across the country. He clawed his way up from a street gang in Hell’s Kitchen to be one of the most powerful people in New York.

Wynand is in his fifties. He’s never been married and doesn’t keep lovers very long. Everything about his life is public—even his penthouse apartment has glass walls. (He tells his mistresses that they’re fornicating in the view of six million people.) His only private pleasure is an art gallery he keeps on the floor below. No visitors are allowed, and no one would dare take the risk of suggesting an addition.

Gail Wynand Raymond Massey

I thought Gail Wynand’s actor looked familiar. It’s Raymond Massey, who played Oswald Cabal in Things to Come.

Stoneridge is the latest addition to Wynand’s real estate empire. An architect hasn’t been chosen, and dozens are literally begging for the opportunity as the Depression starves the profession. Wynand refuses to listen to their pleas—he probably enjoys the feeling of power and control. Ellsworth Toohey meets with his employer and tries to get Keating the commission, but realizes that Wynand isn’t interested. Instead, he suggests Gail meet with Mrs. Peter Keating. Wynand still isn’t interested. Toohey tells him that he’ll be sending a package to Wynand’s apartment which might change his mind.

Wynand completely forgets about the exchange, that night, as he deals with sudden suicidal thoughts. We’re given a complete run-down of his life as he decides whether to end it. Then, wandering his penthouse, he notices Toohey’s package. It’s quite a bit larger than expected, too big to be simple blackmail. He opens it, then calls Toohey and tells him to come over, very late at night.

The package was Steven Mallory’s statue of Dominique, which Toohey obtained during the renovation of the Stoddard Temple.

Wynand is skeptical, and cares more about the artist than the model. The artist is great, he insists, because there’s no way a real woman is that beautiful. The statue and a number of Mallory’s other works will soon enter his private collection. But he agrees to meet with Mrs. Peter Keating.

Toohey arranges the meeting, interrupting a conversation where Peter almost comes to terms with his decades of self-abnegation. It’s not to be—Toohey is too vicious for personal development to last. Keating agrees to let Dominique take a two-month cruise with Wynand, in exchange for Stoneridge.

Gail and Dominique return after a week. Keating will get Stoneridge, but Wynand has decided that he wants to marry Dominique. She is perfectly willing to agree, and Keating begrudgingly allows it. He ultimately cares more about his public prestige than any impersonal principle like fidelity.

Dominque heads to Reno. On the way she visits Howard Roark, who’s building a department store in Ohio. She asks Roark to abandon architecture, she won’t go to Wynand, and they’ll live a quiet life in a quiet town. Roark refuses: she wouldn’t love him if it wasn’t for his integrity and moral stature, embodied in physical buildings. Roark qua Roark is an architect. She found him attractive in the quarry, but she couldn’t love him till she knew he built the Enright House.

I think this elides the possibility of expressing one’s creativity through different outlets, but the general point stands. One of the major themes of The Fountainhead is that we should pursue our happiness no matter how shitty the rest of the world choses to be. After overcoming the serene indifference of her youth, Dominique’s whole struggle is to not hate the rest of the world for existing around Roark.

This is probably a good time to bring up the fact that Rand didn’t really write symbolic female characters. At least, main characters. Minor female characters are frequently symbolic, but the same is true for minor male characters. Dominique was conceived as a “woman for a man like Howard Roark”, but her journey is significant in its own right. I suspect there may have been a few autobiographical details there, though We The Living probably has more.

(In Atlas Shrugged the woman is primarily real, and the man is primarily a symbol, but that’s a deeper analysis than my review got into.)

Ultimately, Dominique goes to Reno, and returns to New York. Gail had wanted a private ceremony, but she insists making it a public event. Their marriage and its consummation have to wait another week as things are organized. The story is given two sentences in the society pages of the Wynand papers.

They enjoy a long honeymoon in Gail’s penthouse, which now features an enclosed bedroom. He doesn’t want to share Dominique with the world—one of the first legitimately selfish decisions of his life. After a few years, he decides he wants to build a country home, essentially to take Dominique out of the city entirely.

He chooses Howard Roark as the architect.

Wynand papers were the loudest voices in the crusade against the Stoddard Temple. Gail simply forgot about this—it was several years past and he was not particularly attached to the paper’s editorial policy. The Banner may appear to lead public opinion, but in practice follows. Near the day of his retirement, Henry Cameron cursed the perverse phenomena that allow the Wynand papers to exist and continue existing. He didn’t know what to call it. Howard Roark does: second-hand living.

Gail Wynand has lived his entire life as a second-hander. His marriage to Dominique is the exception. He chooses Roark to build a home for them, because he saw a number of Roark’s other buildings, and liked them. That same pattern kept Roark afloat following the Temple case, even allowing him to expand his practice.

Two years before, he had been building Monadnock Valley, an affordable resort in Pennsylvania. Roark got the commission, because the owners were pulling a fraud. They sold 200% of the stock and wanted the resort to fail. But their plan is what failed, because Roark designed something so good it succeeded without an advertising budget. Monadnock Valley was the perfect place for an individual or family to take a quiet vacation, away from other people, on a middle-class budget.

Before the news could even break, however, Roark was finally called back to build in New York. A luxury hotel project off Central Park had faltered before the Stoddard Trial, but finally the finances and ownership had been sorted out, so construction resumed. The pace of work picks up, despite the Depression, and in 1936 he moves his offices to the top floor of the Cord Building, the first skyscraper he built.

Roark intends to refuse Gail’s commission, but changes his mind soon after the interview begins. Gail understands Roark’s approach and style. For his house, he wants exactly what Roark is able to provide.

After Roark leaves, Gail goes through the paper’s archives. He reads everything the Banner ever wrote about Howard Roark. A few days later, visiting the site, he confesses this to Roark, who doesn’t really care.

But Wynand has a dark secret, of sorts. A nasty habit. He likes to find men of integrity, and break them. It helps him feel better about having so little virtue of his own. By this point in the book, he’s already told Dominique that the man he can’t break will destroy him.

At their next meeting, Wynand seems like a different man. He makes Roark an offer: build the house as designed, and from then on work in the traditional styles that Roark hates—or refuse, and Wynand will see that Roark never works again.

Roark agrees, quickly sketches a Colonial parody of the Wynand house, and asks if that’s what he wanted. Gail involuntarily says “Good God, no!” and that’s pretty much the end of that.

This is not so much foreshadowing as laying out the ending to see who will notice. I’ll admit: the first time I read The Fountainhead, I didn’t, but that was a long time ago. Maybe older readers will catch that on the initial pass.

In either case, Roark becomes Gail’s friend. He’s a frequent guest at the penthouse, and then later, the country home. Dominique is frustrated, but they maintain a completely professional persona with each other. Meanwhile, the Wynand papers start to plug Howard Roark. Gail forbids Toohey to write about Roark in his column, and regularly thinks of Roark to get through the day. Among other things, he has a photograph taken from the paper enlarged and placed on his office wall.

fountainhead gaetano cover

60th Anniversary cover by Nick Gaetano.

Roark’s practice is better than ever, but Peter Keating’s career is still waning. After Lucius N. Heyer died (more-or-less at Keating’s hands), Peter was promoted to a full partner in the firm. Then Guy Francon retired, so Francon & Keating became Keating & Dumont (he brought up the head draftsman, because that’s just what’s done). But business is bad. He’s not the it-boy anymore, and Toohey has started championing a pair on younger architects: Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott. The firm is rapidly contracting.

His last real hope is the contract to build Cortlandt Homes, a federal housing project in Queens. He doesn’t have much hope of getting it, but the government hasn’t been able to find an architect who can meet their exacting specifications. Keating goes to Toohey and begs for the option. Toohey tentatively agrees: if he can design it, it’s his.

Keating takes the requirements and spends many hours working on the problem. He’s forced to admit the truth: he can’t. He doesn’t admit defeat. He calls Howard Roark.

We’ve seen Keating do this before. His first house for Francon & Heyer was essentially designed by Roark. His most famous building, which won a competition for the “most beautiful building in the world”, had a floorplan devised by Roark. In conversation about Cortlandt, Keating mentions that Roark helped with a lot of Peter’s assignments at school.

Why does Roark, who cares so much about integrity, help Peter cheat? That answer is simple: these are buildings, and Roark can save them. Keating will cover them with all sorts of terrible, unnecessary ornamentation, because that’s the fashion, but the design, floorplan, and function are all massively improved. Dark, contorted hallways become straight passages, space for entire rooms appears on the blueprints. None of this business with bedroom windows facing the superfluous columns of the façade, the sort of thing Keating once made himself ignore.

Roark doesn’t ignore them, because his goal isn’t to impress. Roark tells Keating that, sure, he could talk about the desperate need for affordable housing in New York’s middle class (a conversation which would only sound strange today because NIMBYism has priced out the middle class from the big cities). He could talk about their struggles and the misfortunes of the future tenants.

But that isn’t why he takes the job. Roark agrees to build Cortlandt and let Keating take the credit, because he’ll love the challenge.

He completes Cortlandt, makes it work in-budget and with lower rents than initially anticipated. This works, in part because he rejects many of the paradigms that hamstrung earlier attempts. Tenants are given privacy and expense isn’t wasted on communal spaces. There’s schools and a YMCA nearby, which should provide adequate opportunities for socialization and exercise.

Roark makes no attempt to disguise his handiwork, but most people are perfectly willing to believe Keating & Dumont designed Cortlandt. Gail and Dominique see right through it.

The flow of this review may seem interrupted here, but that’s simply because I’m forced to leave a few things out if I’m not to completely spoil the pleasure of reading. Let’s skip ahead a few pages to a particularly sad scene: when Peter runs into Katie on the street.

Keating is spending less time in the office, slipping over to Roark’s apartment each evening to get the latest sketches for the project. Roark is, perhaps, the only person who ever treated Peter as fully human. From the second chapter, when the two are alone, we see a side of Keating which is never apparent when he has an audience. Only in solitude can he be authentic, and only in solitude can he realize the extent of his own failure.

He reveals to Roark something he’d be hiding from everyone. He’s been dabbling in painting again—Peter wanted to be a painter, all along, but was pressured into architecture by his “doting” mother. But it’s largely too late. Painting isn’t a joy for him, he’s not good at it, it’s not even a relief from suffering. But during the weekend hours when he escapes to a shack in the country he feels vaguely happy.

This is how Roark discovers pity, and what a vile feeling it really is. He never felt this for anyone; not Henry Cameron, not Steven Mallory. Those people had hope and worth and demanded respect. Keating’s attempts at painting, don’t. To uphold pity as a virtue necessarily implies suffering and destruction, neither of which an individualist can accept. Roark hates it and all it implies.

And then Peter runs into Katie. His other aborted ambition appears before him before, and it’s the same sort of ghost. Katie is now a social worker, on assignment to New York from Washington, D.C. He tries to carry on a conversation with her, but it’s largely hopeless. There’s no person left to converse with.

I bring this scene up, most notably, because one of the more frequently quote passages from the book deserves to be read in full:

“Katie . . . for six years . . . I thought about how I’d ask for your forgiveness some day. And now I have the chance, but I won’t ask it. It seems . . . it seems beside the point. I know it’s horrible to say that, but that’s how it seems to me. It was the worst thing I ever did in my life—but not because I hurt you. I did hurt you, Katie, and maybe more than you know yourself. But that’s not my worst guilt . . . Katie, I wanted to marry you. It was the only thing I ever really wanted. And that’s the sin that can’t be forgiven—that I hadn’t done what I wanted. It feels so dirty and pointless and monstrous, as one feels about insanity, because there’s no sense to it, no dignity, nothing but pain—and wasted pain. . . . Katie, why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world—to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want. As I wanted to marry you. Not as I want to sleep with some woman or get drunk or get my name in the papers. Those things—they’re not even desires—they’re things people do to escape from desires—because it’s such a big responsibility, really to want something.”

Katie says that’s ugly and selfish. It’s certainly selfish, but it isn’t ugly. Ugliness isn’t an inherent trait of the world, nor is beauty. They only exist in the context of minds. Only by having a self can beauty mean anything at all.

Roark’s contribution to the Cortlandt project done, he leaves with Gail on a winter cruise. Keating will handle the construction while they’re away. The Wynand papers have been throwing work his way, and Gail finally realizes that Roark needs a vacation.

During their cruise, Roark spends a lot of time thinking. Gail has forbidden him from discussion of architecture, which proves to be no problem. There’s more abstract problems to be dealt with. Among them, is the philosophy of the second-hander.

The second-hander, Roark explains, derives all of his self-esteem from others’ perceptions of him. Peter Keating is brought up as the example, but I’m sure the reader can think of someone in their own life who knows themselves to be lacking on some measure, but tries to ignore the problem because they think that others are oblivious to it. Maybe you can even remember doing the same thing yourself.

Second-handers don’t make evaluations of their own. Their concern is what other people think, what other people feel, what other people expect. None of their ambitions are self-focused. They may want to be admired or noticed or liked—but by other people.

Now there may be selfish ends to that, like finding a lover or getting attention for your business. Similarly, there are plenty of selfish reasons for making money, Roark concedes, like traveling or study or simply enjoying luxury. But making money for the sake of status is worse than silly, it’s destructive. Trying to show off implies a self-assessment so low that you need to appeal outside your own mind for validation.

(Please don’t take this as an attack on those suffering from depression or mental illness. I’ve been there, I know how the mind can lie to itself. I will venture, however, that this irrationality ‘in the water supply’ doesn’t make combatting mental illness any easier.)

You can’t really reason with a second-hander, because there’s no ego to reason with. You have to change the minds of all their friends, and most of their minds haven’t an ego, either. Steven Mallory likens this to a brainless monster destroying the world. Henry Cameron could only point at the New York Banner. Gail is realizing his role in this and tries redeem it by plugging Howard Roark in print. For once, he feels genuinely proud of the newspaper.

When they return to New York, they see second-handing in the flesh.

Cortlandt Homes has been mutilated by bureaucrats, making dozens of needless changes to suit their preconceptions. Gus Webb and Gordon L. Prescott, who couldn’t create Cortlandt themselves, are brought on as “associate designers”. Their changes cost money, forcing further disruptions to keep the project in budget. (This is one reason public projects are always so expensive.)

Keating tried to fight them, but one man can’t argue with Mallory’s monster. It has no ears to hear, no eyes to see, no brains to think. It can only devour and destroy.

Keating goes to see Roark after he gets back from the cruise. Roark listens to him and apologizes for giving him more than he could handle, over all the years. Roark promises that, whatever he does, Peter won’t be his target.

Instead, two weeks later, long before the construction project is complete, he dynamites the site of Cortlandt Homes. He remains at the scene and allows himself to be arrested.

Gail Wynand is furious, and gets a judge out of bed so he can pay Roark’s bail before morning. To make matters worse, Roark enlisted Dominique’s help in ensuring that Cortlandt’s night watchman was out of the blast range. Dominique did a good job of making herself look hurt by the blast, too good, and spends several weeks in the hospital.

Gail sees right through the supposed alibi, but nevertheless offers Roark all possible help with his impending trial. Among other things, he commits the paper’s editorial policy to Roark’s defense. Circulation begins to fall. Protests are organized. Public opposition to the Banner reaches new heights.

Ellsworth Toohey decides to pay Peter Keating a visit.

Keating doesn’t participate in the mass furor. He writes a short article stating that he believes Roark is innocent, refused to talk to the press, and locks himself away in his room.

Toohey is let in, and almost immediately drops all pretense. He goads Keating, daring him to fight back physically, explaining exactly what he intends to do to Roark. Toohey knows Keating couldn’t have designed Cortlandt and wants to extract a confession. Keating resists for awhile, but after so many years of Toohey manipulations there’s very little resistance left. So close to obtaining some sort of redemption, he lets it slip through his hands. He hands over the contract he signed with Roark and then sits on the floor, listening, as Toohey states, in loving detail, his social and political goals: power over unthinking masses.

(Monologuing like that isn’t realistic, but it makes a hell of a story.)

Armed with evidence, Toohey writes about the case in his column. Wynand had explicitly forbidden him from doing so, and fires Toohey immediately. The union of Wynand employees, which Toohey had been putting together for years, walks out on strike. Quite a few non-members join them.

The strike wears on for two months. Readers and advertisers jump ship as Gail tries to keep the newspaper solvent. He rarely leaves the office. Dominique joins him after a few week. For the duration of their marriage he’d tried to keep her away from the Banner—some Mrs. Wynand-Papers—but he immediately gives her back her previous job. She becomes one of his few dependable employees. Most of the good ones quit, the remainder tend to be exhausted, and the new people he can hire are the lowest sort of riff-raff who can write.

It’s a losing battle. The newspaper’s assets and Wynand’s own fortune are running like water. But the strike was never about editorial policy. It was about Wynand’s soul.

For years, Gail Wynand had sold his soul to whoever would buy it. Selling your soul is easy, Roark told Peter Keating. Keeping your soul is much harder. Wynand wasn’t born a second-hander, but became one anyway. The newspaper was his life, but never represented his convictions. Before marrying Dominique, he had very few convictions to represent.

Defending Howard Roark against the mob was his attempt to absolve the decades of terrible actions behind him. It fails. The newspaper will either have to reverse policy, or accept financial failure. The board confronts Wynand with an ultimatum. Give in to the union’s demands, or close the paper. He accepts.

The scene after Wynand concedes is perhaps the saddest passage in all of Rand’s writing. Wandering the city at dusk, Gail contemplates the numerous decisions that led to the failure of his newspaper and its ultimate betrayal of his only friend. He sees bums on the street and recognizes his own soul. He sees trash and the merchandise of a pawn shop. “Hello, Gail Wynand,” he says.

He buys an evening copy of the Banner from a newsstand, and reads the editorial he didn’t write explaining the end of the strike. Later, he comes across an abandoned copy, with a shoe-print over Howard Roark’s face. He sees that he unleashed the proletarians to destroy greatness, that they were powerless without his cooperation. He looks around and realizes fully how much he has done to prevent his own happiness.

Kira bleeding on the snow, Eddie Willers sobbing as he tries to restart the Comet—I don’t think they stack up. They did their best and failed. Gail Wynand is the most tragic Randian character, because he could have, but didn’t.

Gail Wynand wasn’t born a second-hander.

Roark tries to contact Gail, to offer some sort of absolution to his friend, but Gail refuses to see him. He stays in New York and doesn’t visit Dominique in the country. He’s trying to wait it out.

Dominique is done waiting. Roark is spending the summer at Monadnock Valley, awaiting his trial. Dominique drives from Connecticut to join him there. The morning after she arrives, she calls the police to report the “theft” of an imaginary piece of jewelry that Roark supposedly gave to her, of trivial value to a multi-millionaire’s wife. It’s a one-bedroom house, she’s wearing Roark’s pajamas—it’s imminently clear where she slept the previous night. The story hits the papers immediately.

The Banner runs it, as news. Gail says nothing in particular, but allows his lawyer to initiate divorce proceedings. His most loyal assistant at the paper uses it to spin a story that Dominique forced Wynand to defend Roark in print, that he was somehow the victim.

Gail goes to see Dominique at their country house, where he calmly asks her about the details of her relationship with Roark. Dominique becomes frustrated:

He turned to leave.

“God damn you!” she cried. “If you can take it like this, you had no right to become what you became!”

“That’s why I’m taking it.”

He walked out the room. He closed the door softly.

The story builds circulation, as Dominique expected it would. It was her final attempt to help him. Wynand’s public reputation improves. And soon thereafter, Roark goes to trial.

Just as in the Stoddard Trial, Roark sits alone at the defense table. He takes no legal counsel, but he’s planning a different strategy this time.

His supporters sit together in a small cluster. Gail Wynand does not join them; he sits alone. Guy Francon, finally reconciled with his daughter, does. The prosecutor’s opening statement is interspersed with description of the room and the celebrities within it. Roark has chosen a tough jury—professionals, tradesmen, factory workers. The prosecution happily agreed.

The first day of testimony is largely factual: police, the night watchman, project superintendent, building inspectors. The next day opens with Peter Keating called to the stand. Keating mechanically explains that Roark designed Cortlandt. It’s not nearly as exciting as everyone expected. Keating’s testimony concludes the prosecution’s arguments.

Roark rises to the stand. He calls no witnesses, but instead explains the philosophical issues involved. He explains that he was willing to design Cortlandt for no reason beyond seeing it constructed, but it was not constructed in the manner he had been promised. The government got what it needed from him, but he was not given the payment he had expected. Productive, first-handed thinkers should rightfully be paid for their work, not enslaved by nonproductive second-handers. Dynamiting Cortlandt was Roark’s way of protecting that right, whether the law acknowledges it or not.

The full speech is worth reading, but is unfortunately too long to quote here. A compressed version was featured in the 1949 film adaptation, which is reasonably authoritative: Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay. I would strongly recommend watching it.

The jury leaves to deliberate. The audience expects a long recess. Before Roark can even be escorted from the courtroom, the jury returns. Roark is told to stand and face the jury. Gail Wynand stands, too. The foreman delivers the verdict: not guilty. Roark looks to Wynand. Gail turns and leaves the courtroom.

Cortlandt gets a happy ending: Roger Enright buys the site and hires Roark to construct the project as planned. But for Gail Wynand, not so much. His divorce is granted, and then the labor board rules in favor of Ellsworth Toohey. The Banner must reinstate him at his job.

Wynand informs Toohey that he expects him to come to work immediately. Toohey arrives and pretends to work, all while Wynand watches him from the office door. Toohey thinks the situation is absurd: one doesn’t start to work at nine p.m., on command.

The presses stop. Ellsworth Toohey is out of a job. Wynand is closing the Banner. It might seem like a dramatic way to win a fight, but really it’s so much more than that. The newspaper was his life for decades, but it was built on a rotten foundation. Roark’s trial was the last court of appeals. Roark won and the Banner lost. Closing the paper was the thematically logical choice.

It’s the personally logical choice, too. Gail has lost his wife and his one true friend. He’s lost all influence and self-esteem. It’s not unlikely that he’s lost the will to live. (In the screenplay, his suicide is made explicit.) He’s beginning to settle accounts.

A few months later he calls Roark to his office for the last time. All trace of intimacy is gone. He impersonally explains that he’s ready to begin a project they had previously discussed, the construction of a skyscraper in Hell’s Kitchen. The Wynand Building is to be the tallest building in New York and contain all of the remaining aspects of his media empire in the city. A large portion of his properties will be liquidated, so price is no object.

Roark’s philosophy of architecture was, in essence, to build monuments to the lives of his clients, and that is precisely what the Wynand Building was intended to be:

“I told you once that this building was to be a monument to my life. There is nothing left to commemorate now. The Wynand Building will have nothing—except what you give it.”

He rose to his feet, indicating that the interview was ended. Roark got up and inclined his head in parting. He held his head down a moment longer than a formal bow required.

At the door he stopped and turned. Wynand stood behind his desk without moving. They looked at each other.

Wynand said:

“Build it as a monument to that spirit which is yours . . . and could have been mine.”

In the final scene of the novel, Dominique goes to visit Roark at the site of the Wynand Building, looking around the city as she rides the construction elevator up to the roof. She and Roark have gotten what they wanted, as have, presumably, their friends. Wynand hasn’t, of course, but his story was intentionally tragic. Ellsworth Toohey hasn’t be entirely vanquished, but following a clear statement of values, Rand likely expects the clash of believe systems to be concluded forth-with.

Aww.

Or maybe not? In Roark’s speech, he describes collectivism taking over Europe. In the era he’s speaking, that would refer to both Communism and the various forms of Fascism. But The Fountainhead was published in 1943. Victory in World War II was by no means guaranteed, though America’s entry into the war certainly tilted the scales towards the liberal democracies. The conflict with communism lasted for another decade after Rand’s death.

The Fountainhead is a statement of values, but a largely-incomplete one. Almost immediately after publication, fans started demanding a nonfiction account of Rand’s philosophy. One such conversation provided the inspiration for Atlas Shrugged, which explored a lot of ideas in more detail. But Atlas Shrugged is even longer than The Fountainhead, so the latter tends to be the choice for casual readers. They frequently come away with a much more Nietzschean view than intended.

Rand attempts to combat this and other misconceptions in the 1968 introduction, but I don’t think it’s succeeded in that. A lot of people don’t read introductions, and a lot of those who do don’t read them closely. Minor edits to the text might have done a better job—swapping out “religious” for “moral” in Roark’s speech, and replacing almost every instance of “egotist” with “egoist”. There’s a big difference between the two. Roughly speaking, egotists sacrifice others to self, while egoists sacrifice no one to nobody. This is the crux of Objectivist individualism.

To get a clearer picture of Objectivism, including why it is so appealing to certain people, you really need to read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The latter describes why an individualist society would be desirable and the alternatives—not. It contains the themes of how to live as an upright individual, but that question is complicated. The Fountainhead details the many ways in which persons can destroy their own happiness in the name of iffy ideals.

Branden is correct, though, in claiming that both miss their mark. Rand’s fiction gestures in the direction of how to live a life without pain or fear or guilt while nevertheless causing a great deal of all three. These books should not be read uncritically. Contextually appropriate tactics will only lead to frustration and distress if applied generally. Unfortunately, Rand never succeeded in fully translating her philosophy to a language accessible and practicable to the weak and disadvantaged individuals who would benefit from it most.

This is not an essay about that particular topic. Allow me to state only one implication explicitly: by neglecting the neglected, an Objectivist is ceding that entire class of persons to other ideologies. This is perhaps not the best tactic if you want to create a productive, happy, and free society. I’m interested to see how well other writers in the Objectivist movement handle the issue as I continue to explore the wider literature.

However, my primary interest in The Fountainhead instead comes from the idea of second-handing. This is the critical bit that is easy to miss in Atlas Shrugged. Rational self-esteem cannot come from an outside assessment. Just look at the term! Esteem in other’s opinion is necessarily not self-esteem. Now one may ask a trusted individual for evidence on the question, but ultimately you need to track the chain of evaluation back to one’s own mind (if one wants to have any real confidence in their assessment). Rationality necessarily is an internal process.

On a related note: Objectivists take the terms selfish and selfless literally. A truly selfless person wouldn’t be much a person at all. Thankfully, humans do a poor job living up the altruists’ ideal!

The Fountainhead is hardly a universal antidote for selflessness, or even the best introduction to rational selfishness, but it does have the advantage of being an interesting story to read. For that reason, I might recommend it to those who want to learn more about egoism and can read with an open and inquisitive mind. I wouldn’t recommend it to a motivated skeptic. Anthem might be better, or another book I haven’t read at all. The Fountainhead should then be read after another book gets the basic point across.

Regardless of that, it’s still one of my favorites to read. And maybe the selfish pleasure of reading a good book is all it really takes.

fountainhead centennial cover

Should We Colonize Mars Sooner or Later?

Existential threats to the human species (colloquially known as ‘x-risk’) come at three scales. The widest-scale risks would sterilize the solar system, at least, as a whole. Next are threats which could destroy civilization due to societal or technological incompetence. And at the smallest scale are risks to Earth’s habitability.

If that ordering seems odd, consider a few examples.

Threats in the first category include gamma ray bursts, nearby supernovae, or the disruption of the solar system following an encounter with a rogue star. None of these are considered particularly likely in the near future, and more importantly are centuries if not millennia beyond our capacity to defend against them.

Threats in the second category include superintelligence, runaway nanotechnology, or the development of new pathogens against which existing organisms have no natural defense. While these may seem differentiated from the first category by their origins, this is not necessarily the case. Natural pathogens are potentially just as deadly as man-made ones. Furthermore, none of these phenomena are necessarily extinction-level events—superintelligences and autonomous nanoswarms may decide that human civilization is not an adversary, and leave us alone. This is particularly the case if intentionally constructed by conscientious researchers. Such possibilities point to a separate class of civilizational issues—coordination problems—but that is quite another post.

Threats in the final category include asteroid strikes and supervolcano eruptions. Arguably, these are the most tractable of x-risks. With asteroids, in particular, early detection would allow us to perturb the body’s orbit sufficiently to pass clear of Earth, potentially decades or even centuries in advance. Supervolcanoes represent a trickier problem—our geoengineering is not so far developed to adequately predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, let alone attempt to prevent them. But with continued study over the next few hundred years, that may finally change.

There are two plausible positions on the efficacy of space colonization to mitigate existential risks in the third category:

  1. The technological and economic challenges inherent in developing independent off-world colonies will take a very long time to solve, so we shouldn’t bother.
  2. For those very reasons, we should start working on space colonization immediately.

It should not surprise those of you who know me which side of this dichotomy I’m on, but both sides deserve a fairer shake, because the dichotomy is basically false.

For one thing, some money and effort is already expended on space colonization. To be clear, this expenditure is a minuscule fraction of total global production. America spends approximately $19 billion on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration each year, and only a moderate percentage of that total is focused on long-term research1. NASA has a larger budget than any other space agency world-wide, and compared to the Gross World Product of about $75 trillion, we can confidently say that the global expenditure on space colonization is less than 0.03% of the planetary economy.

But even if we halted explicit interplanetary research, the push for more efficient launch vehicles and better medical and agricultural technologies would still represent progress on that front. (Satellite launches won’t end for a long time—you had better believe that Earth observation is critical to managing natural disasters!) When whatever crisis necessitated such a change was finally averted, we would likely be in a better position technologically (if not economically) to pursue off-world colonies.

The crux of the anti-colonization argument, of course, is economics. Can we afford to expend money and effort on space exploration when other problems are supposed to be more pressing? The usual pro-space responses to this question are not terribly good. Let me attempt to give better arguments.

I’ve already made one above, which is that spaceflight consumes a tiny portion of the global production surplus. America alone spends more on education than the world on spaceflight, and it’s not even clear if we’re getting our money’s worth. Those wishing to find the funds for such projects may want to look elsewhere first.

Secondly, the burden of funding astronautics is shifting (slowly!) to the private sector. A few billionaires have gotten tired of competing for the coolest yacht and started competing for the best rocket. Don’t take me for one of the naïve observers who believe space exploration has already been privatized—SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, the United Launch Alliance and all the rest absolutely could not do what they’re doing now without the help of NASA and the Department of Defense, and they know it. But this does represent a shift in the right direction.

Some protest the change on anti-capitalist grounds. I’ve seen a few people say that Elon Musk wanting to colonize Mars is bad, because wealthy individuals would get to escape whatever disaster befalls Earth while the poor perish. I think this objection is foolish for three separate reasons.

Firstly, the sort of person who makes such a criticism is unlikely to support private fortunes to begin with. Obviously, redistribution is their preferred change, but the rich spending their riches on social ends rather than wasting them on mansions is still an improvement. And trying to save humanity is certainly a social end.

Secondly, if a catastrophe does hit Earth, a predominantly wealthy population surviving is still preferable to no one surviving. I have to wonder: do the people who make these arguments entirely appreciate that the question is human extinction?

Let me state that clearly: if you value material equality above the survival of the species, you are no humanitarian.

But the near-term probability of an Earth-only threat coming to fruition is fairly low. In all likelihood, a Mars colony would develop while civilization here continues to exist. Moreover, developing societies from scratch (in multiple locations on Mars, as well as on Luna and the asteroids) will allow us to better comprehend the social problems we’re currently trying to solve. Among the questions that may be answered, will be the role that economic inequality plays in causing other undesirable ends. It may very well be that the billionaires of today are paving the way to something more progressive3.

I don’t think the value of trying out new cultural forms can easily overstated. A major obstacle to solving our problems on Earth is that there’s very little room in which to explore ideas. Succession is illegal in pretty much every country. Taxation and regulation severely limit the space in which experimental communities can be practical4. Of course, Seasteading addresses this particular issue without leaving the planet, but it does not address major planetary risks5, and is unlikely to scale up to the level a colony off-world eventually would.

If we’re taking civilizational threats seriously, we have to decide: colonize Mars sooner or later? To a certain extent, it is an empirical question—what timeline and resource distribution maximizes our odds?—but a question we have to answer on woefully incomplete data.

We don’t know much about the asteroid threat from the inner solar system. We don’t know much about supervolcanoes. We don’t understand the atmosphere well enough to rule out a runaway greenhouse effect. Nor do we understand intelligence enough to predict when or if AI would become a threat, or what the preconditions for a global pandemic are.

For that reason, I advocate increasing work on planetary defense and existential risks across the board—including, yes, space colonization. Now I don’t think that that will be a particularly fast process. Even if landing humans on Mars by 2027 is technologically feasible, founding a colony in the next decade would probably be a suicide mission. There’s just too much prerequisite work to be done.

But that’s true on every front of the fight for our species’ survival. Every year we delay, is a year left to chance. Some argue that the odds are low, because there’s no a priori reason to believe we’re living in a special time6. I reject this argument. There may be no reason to assume that we exist towards the beginning or the end of the human population distribution, but there’s no reason to believe, either, that the last humans will know they’re the last humans until disaster actually strikes. If we’re them (or their parents), well, optimism won’t do us any good.

On the other hand, if disaster doesn’t strike but we’ve cleaned up our environment, created a more resilient infrastructure, developed friendly artificial intelligence, learned how Earth’s interior really works, and colonized the solar system—what a shame. We made a better world, a world that’s now safer and more prosperous than ever, and no threat materialized. Or rather, threats were prevented from materializing.

There’s no deadline, of course, no point after which we’re in the clear. There will always be some risk, even if it’s just from the spontaneous collapse of the universe. But every threat we successfully address leaves humanity better positioned to tackle the next one. Design thorium reactors to end greenhouse emissions, put them in rockets to power advanced propulsion engines. Scale up the rockets we use to deflect asteroids, ride them to Mars. Genetically engineer crops to feed the Martians, send them back to Earth to solve overpopulation. And so on and on, till one fine century we control the stars and save whole systems from destruction.

So let’s get started.

MarsTerraformingSequence


1The vast majority of the agency’s expenditures are on space science2, Earth science, aeronautics, technology research, and supporting operations on the International Space Station. Maintaining a continuously-inhabited station in orbit goes a long way towards preparing for interplanetary missions, but most of the research done on-orbit is focused on more immediate applications such as medicine and materials science.

2Whether lunar, solar, and interplanetary probes count as spending towards eventual colonization probably depends on who you ask.

3I was tempted to write fully-automated luxury communism, but I wouldn’t want to give new readers an incorrect impression of my views. I’m an ex-libertarian more because I support spending 0.5% of the federal budget on space exploration than because I want to nationalize the economy.

4In particular, the requirement to pay county, state, and federal taxes forces more communalist groups to trade on the market, which does nothing to help demonstrate the efficacy of collectivized economic models (or lack thereof).

5That said, Seasteading could prove more environmentally friendly than living on the land. Solar and wind power are practical on such scales, and I doubt seasteaders will waste precious deck area watering grass they’ve no plans to enjoy.

6See Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument.

On the Implications of Nonlinearity and Chaos

I picked up James Gleick’s book Chaos on the recommendation of a friend, mistakenly expecting to learn about physics. The cover misled me, conjuring visions of subatomic particles and string theory. There is physics in Chaos, and physicists playing major roles, but really it’s a book about mathematics. Specifically, nonlinear mathematics.

chaos-cover

Nonlinear can mean different things depending on the context. For Chaos, we’re concerned with differential equations. Differential equations relate a variable and that variable’s derivative. For example:

\frac{dx}{dt} = x(t) + C_1

Nonlinear differential equations entangle the variable and its derivatives in the same term. A simple nonlinear equation would be:

x\frac{dx}{dt} = x(t) + C_2

This equation is relatively benign. C_2 is a constant, so we can separate the equation and rearrange it to a solvable form. We’re thrown this sort of thing in the first two weeks of diff eq, before moving onto harder problems.

Most conceivable differential equations are nonlinear. Certain nonlinear forms are solvable, such as the equation above. But the vast majority are not1.

This is a bit of a problem for us humans, because the universe essentially runs on differential equations. Scientists of all disciplines spent decades mistakenly assuming that unpredictable systems actually oscillated around unseen equilibria. Enough systems really do that that it wasn’t an unreasonable hypothesis—but it turns out that most of them don’t.

As the Twentieth Century progressed, things began to change. Mechanical calculators and digital computers finally let men run the numbers fast enough to see that, no, the systems weren’t doing what they’d previously thought. Edward Lorenz’s meteorological simulations are the canonical example, but biology researchers studying population changes, electrical engineers building signal processing systems, and physicists trying to get a handle on fluid mechanics discovered related phenomena around the same time.

Researchers found patterns in the noise. Lorenz discovered his attractors2. Mitchell Feigenbaum noticed period-doubling bifurcation. Benoit Mandelbrot did . . . honestly what didn’t Mandelbrot do? A quartet of physics grad students at UC Santa Cruz calling themselves the Dynamical Systems Collective (among other names) did a lot of the work, flushing out what became chaos theory and bringing it forward for publication.

Chaos started showing up everywhere. The Dynamical Systems Collective occasionally sat down in a public place and just looked for the nearest pattern of nonlinear behavior, what we now call strange attractors. Was it the dripping faucet in the coffeehouse kitchen? Even massively simplified models of dripping water are nonlinear. Was it that flag blowing in the breeze? One of the members even argued that the needle on his car’s speedometer bounced in a nonlinear fashion.

Once you notice the pattern, you’ll see nonlinear dynamics constantly. It’s easy to quell your curiosity about the world when you think everything has nice, simple governing equations. Some algebraic expression or trigonometric function, with a linear differential equation at worst. And surely that won’t be more than second order!

No. Chaotic systems are all around us. The electrons bouncing through your Ethernet cable behave nonlinearly. Do you know someone with an irregular heartbeat? That’s a nonlinear pattern. Medicine was slow to embrace chaos theory, but the human body is a massively nonlinear system.

Let me intimate that clearly: biological systems tend to be very nonlinear. They cannot be predicted with anything approaching the certainly of simple mechanical systems. And remember, there is no general solution for a simple three body problem.

No equation or set of equations can predict the location of just three lousy planets, approximated as point masses. We’ve known this since the 1880s, but it’s still beginning to sink in to the consciousness of modern civilization. Numerical integration can do wonders, but eventually the system necessarily becomes unpredictable. Only special arrangements can be described as “stable”. In fact, there’s a strong case to be made that the solar system did not form in its current configuration. This arrangement may be an equilibrium reached only after major disruptions, possibly including the ejection of multiple planets to interstellar space.

Now, try developing a semi-functional model of the human brain, neurotransmitters and all. I’ll wait.

When you begin to really think about these things, it can become truly terrifying. The size and degree of our ignorance is difficult to communicate. Engineering and science are considered hard when everything is linearized and simplified to death—the real deal makes that look nearly trivial. Economics and culture are probably even more complex3. After all, molecules don’t have minds of their own.

My biggest criticism of Chaos would probably be that the book doesn’t spend enough time emphasizing this point. There’s a lot of great factual information, but the full implications are barely sketched out. Equations are few and far between—but Mr. Gleick deserves a lot of credit for including equations at all! So despite that flaw, I would very highly recommend Chaos as an introduction to the higher mathematics which makes the world such an interesting place to live.

Lorenz-Attractor


1Even the solvable ones can be real beasts. I still have this monstrosity bookmarked from an analytical homework problem. They told us not to attempt solving it ourselves, and I can see why.

2I took differential equations multiple times, and Lorenz Attractors were the only nonlinear form we discussed in any real detail, and even that avoided calculations.

3Yet, so far as I can tell, the sociology program at my school requires nothing more than the bare minimum in mathematics. Most of the serious work ends up getting published in econ journals.

Three Motivational Psychologies

[Epistemic Status: It all looks right, but I couldn’t prove it to you.]

In my review of Space Cadet, I approvingly quoted this speech from Matt’s academic advisor, Lieutenant Wong:

People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

I want to discuss this passage in more detail because it cuts cleanly to the center of an idea which I’ve been trying to express for several months now, and failing. As usual, someone else communicated it better that I could, long before my birth. The critical mistake, of course, was failing to differentiate between motivational categories and therefore trying to coherently illustrate a false dichotomy.

The idea in question is motivational categories. My interest here is motivation by face, which is generally subsumed by what Ayn Rand called second-hand-living. We’ll be discussing this in-depth Soon™, but I bring it up now because it looks like a useful model.

Let’s enumerate the three motivational types Heinlein sketched out. We’ll number them in the order discussed.

Type 1 describes the sort of person who is primarily focused on achieving financial success and avoiding poverty. When Heinlein wrote Space Cadet, they were probably the most common sort by a wide margin. This is…. less true, today. I suspect this is why so little time was spent discussing them—everyone knew what that kind of person was like. They went to work each morning, sent their kids to school, saved their raises, and attended church on Sunday.

They’re a dying breed, and I’ll miss them.

Type 2 is far more common in the modern era, probably the majority by a wide margin, though that may be a matter of availability bias. They’re the sort of people who drive around blasting music in the middle of the night and seek out “experiences” they can share on social media. They want to have fun in a particularly public manner. We’ve all met some of these people.

Most commentators mistakenly reverse the etiology. MTV / Facebook / Twitter / Snapstagram are the result of this type’s prevalence, not their cause. Social media may serve as a catalyst, but it would not have succeeded in the first place had a critical mass not already been present. One of the upcoming books I’ll review is all about these sorts, but there’s a catch—it was published in 1943. Type 2 motivations have been around forever.

Snapstagram

It turns out Snapstagram was a real company for a few years.

Type 3, finally, is “the professional type.” What this entails isn’t always clear. Generally, these people devote their lives to work for intellectual rather than pecuniary reasons. They include a lot of people in industry, some academics, a few artists, and a good chunk of the clergy.

Nobody falls entirely into any one category, as Lieutenant Wong admits. This is a pretty crude model meant to just grasp at a few broad distinctions. Within a given category, there are several sub-motivations and other, less prominent motivations might not fall into any of the three Types.

Few individuals fall solely within any one of these categories. The overlap is where a lot of interesting dynamics show up, far more than I could discuss properly in a short post. Forgive me for just outlining them.

Type 1 and Type 2 overlaps are extremely common—so common, in fact, that it wasn’t until this last reading that I differentiated motivation-by-face from motivation-by-money. My defense is I was considerably younger on my previous readings, and wealth signaling is absolutely rampant. The idea that people might want money for actually-selfish1 reasons didn’t really occur to me until 2009. All too many people see wealth as a means to second-hand ends than for their own benefit.

Type 1 and Type 3 overlap is a more natural and sensible mix. By producing value—which, in a free economy, implies currency—one can go about implementing moral ends. Charity is not possible without production, science is not possible without surplus, art not possible without patrons. Greater purposes are an end: they cannot provide the means. Only the human manipulation of nature can do that.

Note that this sort isn’t particularly visible. The only example that’s coming readily to mind is Bill Gates, and he’s the richest man in the world2. It’s somewhat challenging to estimate the prevalence of sort of person, because they generally aren’t seeking out fame for their own glorification.

The overlap between Type 2 and Type 3 is quite visible, in a perverted form of virtue signaling. These people are seeking fame for their own glorification, but pretending that they aren’t. You will see this a lot in professional circles. The six-day trip to Africa really changing one’s profile picture is a deservingly mocked form, but it shows up in a lot of other ways, too. People and organizations make a lot of noise about being leaders on “sustainability” or “giving back to the community” when it’s painfully clear that their real interest is being seen as that sort of person3. Now there’s nothing wrong with proselytization, but for the love of God be subtle about it!

I don’t know if this model is actually correct. It looks right and I may write more about why it looks write later, but for now it’s a useful thing to think about. Then again, scientific validity isn’t always the best grounds for constructing useful typologies, because categories are made for man, not the other way around.


1Selfish reasons included personal pleasure and trying to avoid destitution. Vanity doesn’t count, that’s a Type 2 motivation. Simple misers are the stereo-Type 1 person, but they’re a minority of people primarily motivated by money, and an uncharitable one at that.

2At the time of this writing, according to Forbes. That could change again in the future.

3This also applies in politics. Yes, my libertarian friends, I am still looking at you!

Book Review: Space Cadet

[Content Note: Intentionally exacting ethics, extensive quotation, casual discussion of nuclear warfare. Considerable spoilers for Space Cadet, but not in the way that you’d think.]

spacecadetcover

I’m probably going to regret trying to review Space Cadet because Heinlein is always about morality and writing about morality always frustrates me no end.

To be clear, it’s not morality that frustrates me, but writing about it, because I don’t have the time to dash off a three hundred page introduction to whatever idea it is that I’m trying to communicate. Learning to think in aesthetics was probably a mistake, because then you have to concretize and suddenly see that you’ve leapt over all the supporting framework.

If this seems a little dramatic for a slim YA novel, well, this book can be read on multiple levels. My initial reading, back in elementary school, mostly just took away the science fiction story of Matt Dodson joining the Patrol and his subsequent adventures as a cadet traveling the solar system.

Matt is a convenient character for this sort of story, because he has almost no defining features. He was raised in Iowa, North American Union, Terra. He struggles in mathematics but ultimately succeeds, enjoys playing space polo, studied Basic but not tensor calculus in high school, makes several friends and an enemy. Note that those friends have more features than him: “Tex” Jarman has a personality as big as his home state, Oscar from Venus tells us all about the Venerian culture and customs, Pete from Ganymede has an emotional episode of homesickness. Even the hate sink has a better-defined backstory. We’re intended to step easily into Matt’s shoes.

Heinlein, meanwhile, self-inserts into the various Patrol officers mentoring the young men as they attend Annapolis in space. The Patrol is not just a military organization, or a research organization, or a humanitarian organization. It’s all of these and more. Crafting boys into the sort of supermen who can keep the peace between the various nations of Terra and the inhabitants of Mars and Venus is no mean feat.

The first half of the novel is a standard Bildungsroman on the making of a spaceman. Consider this passage, during Matt’s orientation aboard the P.R.S. Randolph in geosynchronous orbit, where each cadet begins his education. Lieutenant Wong, Matt’s mentor, is explaining a cadet’s curriculum:

“Everything that can possibly be studied under hypno[sis] you will have to learn that way in order to leave time for the really important subjects.”

Matt nodded. “I see. Like astrogation.”

“No, no no! Not astrogation. A ten-year-old child could learn to pilot a spaceship if he had the talent for mathematics. That is kindergarten stuff, Dodson. The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. I know, from your tests, that you can soak up the math and physical sciences and technologies. Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.”

Matt was looking bug-eyed. “My gosh! How long does it take to learn all those things?”

“You’ll still be studying the day you retire. But even those subjects are not your education; they are simply the raw materials. Your real job is to learn how to think—and that means you must study several other subjects: epistemology, scientific methodology, semantics, structures of languages, patterns of ethics and morals, varieties of logics, motivational psychology, and so on. This school is based on the idea that a man who can think correctly will automatically behave morally—or what we call ‘morally.’ What is moral behavior for a Patrolman, Matt? You are called Matt, aren’t you? By your friends?”

“Yes, sir. Moral behavior for a Patrolman . . .”

“Yes, yes. Go on.”

“Well, I guess it means to do your duty, live up to your oath, that sort of thing.”

“Why should you?”

Matt kept quiet and looked stubborn.

“Why should you, when it may get you some messy way of dying? Never mind. Our prime purpose here is to see to it that you learn how your own mind works. If the result is a man who fits into the purposes of the Patrol because his own mind, when he knows how to use it, works that way—then fine! He is commissioned. If not, the we have to let him go.”

Matt remained silent until Wong finally said, “What’s eating on you, kid? Spill it.”

“Well—look here, sir. I’m perfectly willing to work hard to get my commission. But you make it sound like something beyond my control. First I have to study a lot of things I’ve never heard of. Then, when it’s all over, somebody decides my mind doesn’t work right. It seems to me that what this job calls for is a superman.”

“Like me.” Wong chuckled and flexed his arms. “Maybe so, Matt, but there aren’t any supermen, so we’ll have to do the best we can with young squirts like you. Come, now, let’s make up the list of spools you’ll need.”

Thus begins Matt’s theoretical education as a Patrolman. The process isn’t easy for him, and he struggles. That aspect of the story is far more relatable to me now that when I read this book as a kid, because I’ve been there. Honestly, if I could make 2013!me read a particular book, I’d probably ask myself to reread Space Cadet. It might just have bent the trajectory of my life a different direction.

Matt, too, struggles with trajectories—he’s so frustrated by the coursework in astrogation that he asks Lieutenant Wong for a transfer to the space marines. Wong refuses, saying that Matt is too far removed from the appropriate mindset:

“People tend to fall into three psychological types, all differently motivated. There is the type, motivated by economic factors, money . . . and there is the type motivated by ‘face,’ or pride. This type is a spender, fighter, boaster, lover, sportsman, gambler; he has a will to power and an itch for glory. And there is the professional type, which claims to follow a code of ethics rather than simply seeking money or glory—priests and ministers, teachers, scientists, medical men, some artists and writers. The idea is that such a man believes that he is devoting his life to some purpose more important than his individual self.

[. . .]

“The Patrol is meant to be made up exclusively of the professional type. In the space marines, every single man jack, from the generals to the privates, is or should be the sort who lives by pride and glory.”

“Oh . . .”

Wong waited for it to sink in. “You can see it in the very uniforms; the Patrol wears the plainest of uniforms, the marines wear the gaudiest possible. In the Patrol all emphasis is on the oath, the responsibility to humanity. In the space marines the emphasis is on pride in their corps and its glorious history, loyalty to comrades, the ancient virtues of the soldier. I am not disparaging the marine when I say that he does not care a tinker’s damn for the political institutions of the Solar System; he cares only for his organization.

“But it’s not your style, Matt. I know more about you than you do yourself, because I have studied the results of your psychological tests. You will never make a marine.”

Rejected by Lieutenant Wong, Matt returns to astrogation, planning secretly to not return from his first leave.

The next chapter opens waiting for the rocket back to P.R.S. Randolph, wondering just when he changed his mind. The narrative alternates between the rocket flight and Matt’s vacation, illustrating the ways in which he is no longer a civilian:

Great-aunt Dora was the current family matriarch. She had been a very active woman, busy with church and social work. Now she was bed-fast and had been for three years. Matt called on her because his family obviously expected it. “She often complains to me that you don’t write to her, Matt, and—”

“But, Mother, I don’t have time to write to everyone!”

“Yes, yes, but she’s proud of you, Matt. She’ll want to ask you a thousand questions about everything. Be sure to wear your uniform—she’ll expect it.”

Aunt Dora had not asked a thousand questions; she had asked just one—why had he waited so long to come see her? Thereafter Matt found himself being informed, in detail, of the shortcomings of the new pastor, the marriage chances of several female relatives and connections, and the states of health of several older women, many of them unknown to him, including the details of operations and post-operative developments.

I’m glad I’ve never had that experience with my older relatives, though when Dad talks about his coworkers….

Yes, maybe that was it—it might have been the visit to Aunt Dora that convinced him that he was not ready to resign and remain in Des Moines. It could not have been Marianne.

Marianne was the girl who had made him promise to write regularly—and, in fact, he had, more regularly than she. But he had let her know that he was coming home and she had organized a picnic to welcome him back. It had been jolly. Matt had renewed old acquaintances and had enjoyed a certain amount of hero worship from the girls present. There had been a young man there, three or four years older than Matt, who seemed unattached. Gradually it dawned on Matt that Marianne treated the newcomer as her property.

It had not worried him. Marianne was the sort of girl who never would get clearly fixed in her mind the distinction between a planet and a star. He had not noticed this before, but it and similar matters had come up on the one date he had had alone with her.

And she had referred to his uniform as “cute.”

He began to understand, from Marianne, why most Patrol officers do not marry until their mid-thirties, after retirement.

This passage, and several like it, were why I decided to reread Space Cadet after all these years. The disconnect between specialist and layman grows too large and it becomes impossible to talk meaningfully about your work. So far, I’ve managed to keep Mom and Dad up to speed, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

Matt is in a much worse state, trying to describe missile maintenance to his parents, who neither understand orbital mechanics, nucleonics, nor the political motivations of the Patrol.

Nuclear weapons are kept in polar orbits, he explains, so that the entire planet is covered by the Patrol’s watchful eye. They are regularly serviced by ships—physically caught by a cadet, disarmed, and reeled in for inspection and repositioning. Matt casual mentions that J-3 will be passing over Des Moines in a few minutes, which gives his mother a fit of anxiety. “What if it should fall?” she demands.

Objects in orbit don’t fall, of course, as Matt explains—they would have to instantaneously lose 7,800 m/s of velocity to drop straight down. If the Patrol needed to nuke Des Moines that night, they would use a missile requiring a more moderate change of trajectory, like I-2 or H-1.

This doesn’t comfort her.

Matt’s father tries to argue that the Patrol would never bomb the North American Union, because the majority of Patrol officers are from North America. Matt refuses to commit, insisting later that the Patrol absolutely would. But he has doubts.

For the first few weeks after leave, Matt was too busy to fret. He had to get back into the treadmill, with more studying to do and less time to do it in. He was on the watch list for cadet officer of the watch now, and had more laboratory periods in electronics and nucleonics as well. Besides this he shared with the other oldsters the responsibility for bringing up the youngster cadets. Before leave his evenings had usually been free for study, now he coached youngsters in astrogation three nights a week.

He was beginning to think that he would have to give up space polo, when he found himself elected captain of [the deck’s] team. Then he was busier than ever. He hardly thought about abstract problems until his next session with Lieutenant Wong.

“Good afternoon,” his coach greeted him. “How’s your class in astrogation?”

“Oh, that—It seems funny to be teaching it instead of flunking it.”

“That’s why you’re stuck with it—you still remember what it was that used to stump you and why. How about atomics?”

“Well . . . I suppose I’ll get by, but I’ll never be an Einstein.”

“I’d be amazed if you were. How are you getting along otherwise?” Wong waited.

“All right, I guess. Do you know, Mr. Wong—when I went on leave I didn’t intend to come back.”

“I’d rather thought so. That space-marines notion was just your way of dodging around, trying to avoid your real problem.”

“Oh. Say, Mr. Wong—tell me straight. Are you a regular Patrol officer, or a psychiatrist?”

Wong almost grinned. “I’m a regular Patrol officer, Matt, but I’ve had the special training required for this job.”

“Uh, I see. What was it I was running away from?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Tell me about your leave, then. We’ve got all afternoon.”

“Yes, sir.” Matt meandered along, telling as much as he could remember. “So you see,” he concluded, “it was a lot of little things. I was home—but I was a stranger. We didn’t talk the same language.”

Wong chuckled. “I’m not laughing at you,” he apologized. “It isn’t funny. We all go through it—the discovery that there’s no way to go back. It’s part of growing up—but with spacemen it’s an especially acute and savage process.”

Matt nodded. “I’d already gotten that through my thick head. Whatever happens I won’t go back—not to stay. I might go into the merchant service, but I’ll stay in space.”

“You’re not likely to flunk out at this stage, Matt.”

“Maybe not, but I don’t know yet that the Patrol is the place for me. That’s what bothers me.”

“Well . . . can you tell me about it?”

Matt tried. He related the conversation with his father and his mother that had gotten them all upset. “It’s this: if it comes to a showdown, I’m expected to bomb my own hometown. I’m not sure it’s in me to do it. Maybe I don’t belong here.”

“Not likely to come up, Matt. Your father was right there.”

“That’s not the point. If a Patrol officer is loyal to his oath only when it’s no skin off his own nose, the whole system breaks down.”

Wong waited before replying. “If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your own hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called upon to carry out the attack is equally slight…But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Matt still looked troubled. “Not satisfied?” Wong went on. “Matt, you are suffering from a disease of youth—you expect moral problems to have nice, neat, black-and-white answers. Suppose you relax and let me worry about whether or not you have what it takes. Oh, some day you’ll be caught in a squeeze with no one around to tell you the right answer. But I have to decide whether or not you can get the right answer when the problem comes along—and I don’t even know what your problem will be! How would you like to be in my boots?”

Matt grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn’t like it.

From thereon out, it’s a fairly standard science fiction story. If the last hundred page feel like an entirely different novel, well, the earlier drafts went in a rather different direction. In the final version, however, Matt is assigned to a ship, continuing his education while on search-and-assist in the asteroid belt, before being sent to Venus. There, Matt, Tex, and Oscar find themselves stranded, their commanding officer incapacitated, and must keep the peace with the local Venerians while rescuing themselves—exactly the sort of experience Lieutenant Wong was preparing Matt for. If only all college guidance counselors had the time and training to take such interest in their students’ psychological development!

What draws me to Space Cadet again after so many years is that it is not just a fun adventure in space (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). It’s a vision of how to live as human beings.

This story was written immediately after the war, copyright 1948. The specter of fascism still hung over the western world, that Russia would be our geopolitical enemy for next forty years was still largely unthinkable.

Heinlein was looking ahead to a world of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Remember, Uncle Joe still didn’t have the bomb—if we’d acted quickly, the entire planet could have been a democracy (or a dictatorship). Even before America entered the war, Heinlein was thinking about the threat that nuclear weapons posed to world peace and world freedom.

In various forms, the Patrol was his fictional attempt to answer this problem. A quasi-military organization, with unlimited funds and unlimited firepower at its disposal, and each officer committed to the safety of every nation but his own. Lieutenant Wong is no accident: the Patrol’s multicultural character is made clear throughout the book. In a classic Heinlein twist, only after the boys are stranded on Venus do we learn that one of their commanders was of African descent.

(Those who mistakenly believe Sixth Column accurately represent Heinlein’s views on race should consider that he wrote this, for kids, at the same time.)

A decade before the beatniks, we’re told to stand up tall and proud in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and conduct ourselves as men.

Let’s do the responsible thing here and quote from William Patterson’s biography:

An incident witnessed on a family outing in Swope Park in 1912 stayed with [Heinlein] for the rest of his life. He would take it out of memory and turn it over in his mind again and again, examining it with wonder:

A young couple was walking along a set of railroad tracks that cut through the park in those days when the woman got her heel caught in a switch—a nuisance, until they heard a train whistle approaching at speed. Another younger man—the newspapers later said he was a tramp—stopped to help them get free. As the train bore down on them, the husband and the tramp struggled to get the woman free and were struck, all of them. The wife and the tramp were killed instantly, the husband seriously injured.

Why did he do it? Not the husband, who was, after all, simply (simply!) doing his duty by his wife—but the tramp, who had no personal stake in their welfare and could have jumped aside, even at the last minute, to save himself. Why did he do it? wondered little Bobby and then Adolescent Bobby—and so, repeatedly, did Midshipman Bob and politician Bob and adult Robert, understanding a bit more, a bit differently, every time he looked at it.

An artist works in images and articulates images even when he can’t necessarily articulate the meaning. This incident became a core image for [Heinlein], one that showed him in a way beyond words what it means to be a human being. At the end he still could not articulate it. All he could say about it was: “This is how a man dies. This is how a man lives!” And that was enough.

This is what I love about Space Cadet, what I love about the Patrol, and what I love about Heinlein.

Maybe thinking with aesthetics isn’t so bad after all.