Scientist, Best-Selling Author, Tech-Consultant and Speaker
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
June 2, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Thursday, June 2nd, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. David Brin. David, it is very nice to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
DAVID BRIN: Oh, thank you, and for putting up with my inadequate voice.
ZIERLER: No worries at all.
BRIN: I have a summer cold. I have done several tests, and I don't have the crud, but there're other types of crud.
ZIERLER: That's right. To start, would you please tell me your title and any institutional affiliations you might have?
BRIN: I'm currently on the External Advisory Council of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts Program, NIAC, which is NASA's sort of micro DARPA for looking into projects that are just this side of science fiction. At least a couple a year turn out to be wonderful contributions that launch to other funding, and at least one per year later turns out to be a head-smacker—"What were we thinking by funding that?" That's about the right mix, for a program that spends just a little bit of money on speculative things.
I mostly earn my living as an author of speculative fiction, also non-fiction works, and do a fair amount of consulting and public speaking about the future.
ZIERLER: When you were in graduate school, were you on an academic track? Did you want to get a PhD in astronomy because you thought that would be a great path to writing?
BRIN: Well, I did things in parallel. When I was an undergrad at Caltech, I soon learned that many, even most scientists have part-time artistic pastimes. Murray Gell-Mann was a student of Joyce and obscure English literature and Greco-Roman history. Richard Feynman played the bongos and painted. I was told by my father that he took me to see Einstein play the violin – at Caltech - when I was three. I have no memory of that. But it always struck me how many top researchers also nurture an arty side. Hence, when I give commencement speeches, I tell students they should try to be many. Be more than just one thing.
Now, of course science is hard! Research takes focus and so it is the thing that you have to pay attention to by daylight, keeping schedules and collaborating with with others. If you truly are ‘many'- both a scientist and an artist – then your art is generally something you can put off for evenings, weekends. That doesn't mean you're prioritizing science higher.
Even if you allocate your brain equally between art and science, science is what you must do by daylight. It's what you have to focus on, in collaborative efforts, and with time and discipline. Art can be pursued part-time, with often very good results. While I was an engineer at Hughes Aircraft, after graduating from Caltech, and then while I was a graduate student in astrophysics at UCSD under Hannes Alfvén, I pursued my art – writing novels – patiently on weekends, evenings. In fact, my published novel helped pay for my PhD! I had every intention of continuing along academic tracks. Only then something unexpected happened. My second novel was such a hit – all those awards and best-seller tags - that it became clear: civilization valued my art a bit more than it valued my science.
I mean, well. Who am I to argue with civilization?
ZIERLER: [laughs] David, in what way did your academic trajectory inform the kind of writing that you wanted to do, the topics you wanted to explore?
BRIN: Only maybe 10% of science fiction authors are scientists, or extensively scientifically trained. But all science fiction authors, or almost all, are deeply imbued in the greatest story of them all, called history.
History is this fantastically tragic, dramatic tale about generations of real humans clawing their way out of mud and caves, committing terrible mistakes along the way, many of them well-intentioned, until all those advances and setbacks and ironic sidesteps brought us to the point where we can stand on all of their shoulders to finally look up. And then create shoulder platforms for others to step on, as they reach out to the stars. That's why I claim that science fiction should have been called speculative history! Because it speculates about possible extensions of that tragicomedy, that dramatic—the dramatic story, which is history.
Is it at all surprising that most science fiction authors are imbued in history? I am. I mean, I've read as much history as I have physics, and I find it just as fascinating. Some former English majors - Nancy Kress, Sheila Finch, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear - create very scientifically informed SF, even though they could not parse a differential equation if their lives depended on it. But, these talented writers and peers know a trick. They visit a nearby university, offering pizza and beer to any expert they need! And those scientists are almost always happy to provide any context that needed for a story. (Any fellow ex-Techers out there want to be sci fi consultants? Talk it over and send me a list!)
It's a synergy, of course, because many scientists claim that they were inspired by science fiction.
ZIERLER: Inspired to make sci fi predictions come true?
BRIN: Yes, that. But it's less our job to predict the future as it is to prevent it with effective warnings. I go into that matter of the self-preventing prophecy in my latest non-fiction tome, Vivid Tomorrows, recently published by McFarland. One assertion: without Hollywood sci-fi warnings, this species would likely not exist right now; we'd have died of one or another of the failure modes that were warned about inbooks and films.
Well, it's a point worth arguing. Soylent Green and tales of eco disaster recruited millions of environmentalists. Bio-plague tales revved up preparations that got us vaccines within six months of Covid's arrival. Retired officers write about procedural reforms that followed Doctor Strangelove and other nukewar warning. And of course the grand-daddy… Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four… hyper sensitized us toward pools of festering power.
ZIERLER: Do you insist on keeping the science in your science fiction work plausible?
BRIN: I like to, but I don't allow that to be a limitation. In my novel Kiln People, for instance, I offer a highly implausible initial scenario - suppose we develop a machine that enables you to make clay temporary golems, humanoid figures, that last for about 24 hours, and impress all your memories into them, your soul basically, as god is said to have impressed a soul into clay when he made Adam, or the terracotta soldiers of Xi'an, or the golem of Prague.
There's no science underlying that premise. I'm taking venerable mythologies and saying, "What if technology let us deliver on those old dreams?" Only once we start with that initial premise, now let's run with it and see what society might plausibly be like, if everyone – you and I - could make four or five copies of ourselves every day, send them out into the world, knowing everything that we know, so they know what you feel needs doing, they do those things and then download their memories back into you at the end of the day. Imagine how much more you'd get done? To my surprise, I found this was more a story about human personality than anything else, because different folks would do different things with that power of self-duplication.
Now, what's pertinent to your question is, am I all the time trying to think of the next near-term extrapolation? Sometimes I do. Some stories deal with the deep-down evolutionary ‘logic' of viruses, for instance. One researcher wrote to me after reading my story Chrysalis and said, "Hey, Brin, your speculation about what cancer really is all about may be the one thing you'll be remembered for, 100 years from now!" Well, that's a little scary thing to hear, but you'll notice I just bragged it.
On the other hand, sometimes you just take a premise and you say, "What would people do with something like this?" What if we could, with some prosthetics and training, teach everyone to fly like Superman? What would the traffic jams be like above our city streets? What if it hurt a little? Would people all the time complain about getting to fly, the way we now complain about having to spend six hours in an aluminum tube, in order to flit over a continent that our ancestors slaved and sweated to cross for a year, and most of them died? The theme in that story was ingratitude. The theme of Kiln People is, how can you be more than you already are, with just the talents you already have, if you just had more time to get everything done?
ZIERLER: When have you come closest to getting the predictions right?
BRIN: My 1989 novel Earth is the one that gets the highest scores on the predictive sites, including all sorts of benefits and problems from the Web that was just then getting born. Plagues of disinformation, for example. Of course a core theme was climate/greenhouse effects, that are now central to the fine novels of Kim Stanley Robinson.
One notion that hasn't come true is my speculation in Earth that—say it were possible to make micro black holes, and if they had a trait of reflecting gravity waves, then you'd have the ingredients for a gravity laser. After all, what is a laser? A laser is essentially two mirrors on both sides of an energized environment. If energy is released that happens to travel along the path between two mirrors, and there are Einstein-ian stimulated emission coefficients in that medium, then you're likely to get stimulated amplification of coherent emission of that type of radiation. Again, not every speculation in science fiction has to be short-term plausible! I doubt that anybody is about to either make micro black holes or find out if they can be used as mirrors. But oh, what fun we wind up having with the implied outcomes!
My job is to speculate, sometimes in the near future, and sometimes into the slightly or even somewhat more than slightly implausible, but not impossible. Because as Arthur C. Clarke said, "The only way to find out what's possible is to step at least a little bit of a distance into the impossible."
ZIERLER: Thinking what might be possible, how have you dealt with utopianism or the notion of utopias in your writing?
BRIN: Look, people claim that I'm some kind of a flaming optimist, because I think there's a 40% chance we're going to make it to a really good society, one that's capable of delivering justice and peace and plenty and freedom and expanding into the galaxy. Indeed, we may be the first.
ZIERLER: You're talking about the Fermi Paradox.
BRIN: Right. The question of why we don't see vast signs of advanced technological civilization, out there. I've catalogued 100 potential explanations, ranging from the ridiculous (e.g. always-blurry teaser UFOs) all the way to the sublime. But my number one theory is that humans are exceptionally smart and nice! Now, that's a little bit jarring, I know, given how much self-criticism we pour across ourselves as being this nasty, horrible, rapacious species. But evidence supports the notion that both are true.
The very fact that we pour so much criticism upon ourselves and upon our leaders is a sign of the health, fundamental health, of the enlightenment experiment. It means we have found a way to get past the human curse of delusion, the method of reciprocal criticism that I talk about in The Transparent Society. So we teach our children—especially through Hollywood films and culture—values like suspicion of authority, diversity, tolerance, eccentricity, individualism. Ironically, when we criticize humanity as being so awful, we are reflecting one of the traits that might make us truly exceptional, and that is our ability to engage in self-criticism.
For a variety of reasons, including our propensity for empathy, I believe that humans may be exceptional, and that this peculiar civilization is exceptional within the exception. Any society that rewards persnickety, critical personality types deserves loyalty from persnickety, critics. Alas, so many are so loud with sanctimonious criticism, that they don't stop to realize that they'd be dead by now in any other culture.
And so we come full circle. Am I ‘optimist' because I think that we have a 40% chance to create a brilliant successor civilization, and only a 60% chance of failure, with all the problems that we face? I suppose the word fits, by comparison to all the dyspeptic gloom out there!
I suppose I'm an optimist because because almost everyone seems to be getting off on dystopias and pessimism and yowling and screaming. I'm an optimist because of the market opportunity. It's an empty ecological niche! If everyone were talking about how great things are, I'd be throwing bricks through windows, but there's no lack of of bricks flying right now.
Some voices are speaking up for hope. I recommend Peter Diamandis's book Abundance and Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature. For my part, I've created two series of YA novels—futuristic adventures for teens—that offer somewhat optimistic versions of tomorrow's world. In one of them—(see link below)—aliens kidnap a California high school and live to regret it.
ZIERLER: [laughs] That ought to appeal to the YA readers!
BRIN: I'm also mentoring young writers in the Out of Time series, set 300 years in the future. There's a beautiful utopia. People succeeded in finally cleaning up the mess left by the Baby Boomers! But all of a sudden, across the galaxy, all the civilizations who had trapped in their solar systems by that bastard Einstein—everyone gets teleportation to the stars. So suddenly we need diplomats, warriors, spies, liars, and our nice descendants have forgotten how to do all those things! So they reach into the past for heroes who do know how to lie and sneak and connive! Moreover only teenagers can teleport to the stars or survive time travel, so…. You can see how that premise is tailored to suit teen fantasies. Certainly the utopia-in-peril trope is far more rare than the tediously repetitious dystopias they churn out, these days.
ZIERLER: Your affiliation with NASA, can we read into that that NASA institutionally values science fiction in the way that it envisions its missions, what it wants to accomplish?
BRIN: Science fiction has been in increasingly good repute, across my career. When my first novel sold, there were some in my department who thought that it meant that I was not a serious scientist. Again, the zero-sum reflex of limitations.
More generally, it used to be that all the literary community publications like New Yorker and Harper's and Atlantic would issue hit pieces against science fiction every few years.
Now? The same publications can't kvell on science fiction enough! It's partly because SF has worked hard to become multicultural, with the Chinese sci fi renaissance and Afro-futurism and such. But there have always been people in government and in business who appreciated the notion of, "Let's imagine bit outside the box." It's in 30 years that I've invited to Washington think tanks and intel agencies, to help expand possibilities at the edges of their white board.
NIAC is the little section of NASA funds projects at TRL—or Technological Readiness Level—1, or even zero, to see if they can be refined. Just $125,000; spend nine months refining your idea to see if it's worth a little further investment in a Phase 2… and one Phase 3 for a project that turned out to be anomalously really cool. On rare occasions, a Phase 1 draws attention right away, money a lot more serious than NIAC can provide., swiping our projects. Great!
Do I get to meddle this way because of my science fiction? I guess if I have one real, it's asking questions—provocative or even irksome ones. It's probably the one talent I picked up at Caltech. It's how I got into my graduate work, actually. I was working for Hughes Aircraft Research Labs, straight out of Tech, working in parallel on a master's on theoretical properties of polarized light. I'd sit in on several different seminar series, and I started in the back—waiting to ask a question with the undergrads. Later, in the middle with the grad students. Then professors started leaving me a seat in the second row. Hannes Alfvén, the plasma physics pioneer, invited me to join his group. So, my own advice is to ask the next question. Though with a caution. In almost any other human culture, it will get you snuffed out, like a candle.
ZIERLER: I'll give you three options, David. Have you already written your magnum opus, is your magnum opus waiting to be written, or do you not believe in the concept of a magnum opus?
BRIN: Oy. Well. My wife certainly thinks I have a big one in front of me. When I've moved farther along on these YA novels, which I consider to be my pay-it-forward, I feel I owe my fans to complete my Uplift series, which is portrayed here in my office in the Jim Burns painting from Sundiver. It's the series that won all those awards—about humanity in the future, raising up the functional intelligence of dolphins, apes, other animals, which I consider to be a very serious prospect, running in parallel to all the recent discussions of artificial intelligence, involving a lot of the same issues.
Whether or not I have time after that to write another GAN—great American novel—well, I personally think Existence is pretty darn close to my magnum opus. Some people think The Postman—you know, the one that Kevin Costner made into a movie that is visually and musically gorgeous, and was faithful to the heart message of my book; though it scooped out and threw away all the brains. Alas.
Then again, one has to be even-tempered about this sort of thing. I mean, contemplate that; they made a movie of my book! All right, the flick is gorgeous, big-hearted, and dumb. Well, you know, that's exactly what my wife married.
BRIN: So yeah, I would say there's probably a more than 50% chance, given lifespan, that the works that future people will call my greatest works are behind me. I intend to keep defying that, and to make it not true. So there!
ZIERLER: [laughs] David, let's go back now in history. In high school, growing up in the Los Angeles area, was Caltech the place for you to go? Was that what you really wanted to do?
BRIN: Well, living in the area, I had taken tours of Tech. I was a late bloomer, academically. It wasn't until mid high school that I became one of those guys—you know, honors programs and all that. Then, senior year, I just really took off. Blah, blah, normal story for Techers. Still, I did not expect to be admitted and considered it to be almost a command. And yes, Tech was was really, really hard. I suspect they expected me to be one of the two history majors, per class! Instead, well some deem astronomy to be the hardest major. Squeaked by!
I took that path because of the one evening that Richard Feynman spoke directly to me and gave me two direct orders. It was at a dance at Page House, and we were kvelling [ed. Yiddish - to express pride] around him. He had drilled a hole in his Nobel Prize and it was hanging from a chain around his turtleneck. This was 1970; forgive him.
ZIERLER: [laughs] Okay, then. What direct commands did Richard Feynman give you?
BRIN: A tune by Iron Butterfly came on. He bowed to me and he bowed to my date, and gestured to the dance floor. He said, "I want to borrow your date for this dance."
"Well, what else would you like? My left arm? My first-born child? Anything. You're Feynman."
She was delighted. But, well, five minutes later, he comes back and we all feared he was having heatstroke! I'm told he later wrote a paper about how the turtleneck is not an item of male clothing. (We gotta vent!) Oh, by the way, it was a little ditty called "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" that lasts 25 minutes. So he was beat. And so, with my date beaming beside him, Richard Feynman told me: "You must take my place."
Well, obediently, I became a physics major. I tried! Only after graduation did I realize he mighta meant something else.
In any event, I did come away from Caltech with probably the best education I could possibly have had. Exposure to ideas, even in those classes where I didn't get the best grades, was fantastic, and the after-class discussions and arguments with the teachers? Unparalleled. I also did something that I tell students about at commencements and such. My advice to those who want to squeeze the most out of university is, "Each month, take a map of your campus. Throw a dart at it. Wherever the dart lands, go to the nearest building, stand outside, roll dice, go to the random floor you chose, throw a ball down the hall! Or pick some other way to choose a random room. Knock on that door, and say, ‘Excuse me, what do you do here?'"
Now, I didn't do it that systematically at Tech, but that general approach—exploring every corner of campus—led to three summer jobs, and it's one of the reasons why I came out of Caltech with, in effect, a generalist degree. And I use it every day.
ZIERLER: This being the late 1960s and early 1970s, were you politically-minded during this period?
BRIN: As a child of the 1960s, of course, I was politically minded. In fact, it looked for a while there as if the United States of America was going to dissolve in violence and fury. We see similar tensions today, but anyone who would try to compare this year, or any post World War year, or any five post-World War years, to 1968, is a fool. Any two-week stretch of 1968 would kill any of you 21st Century whippersnappers. My father was 20 feet from Bobby when he was shot. Worst day of my life. Martin Luther King, Tet, Chicago, pick any week, including the very final news item, Apollo 8's gift of that image—our world, glimmering in cosmic loneliness, like the final jewell of hope at the bottom of Pandora's box..
And yuh, that fall's when I got to Caltech. It seemed a little bit of a blissful island where politics was only all over the place.
In fact, I remember when everyone was running like mad that November, screaming and grabbing piles of wood and heading out to the corner of California and Lake to make a bonfire, while the police just stood back, because of the then credible rumor that Caltech undergraduates have the Bomb.
No, they weren't celebrating Nixon's election or Star Trek getting another season. It was because Caltech just won its first football game in anyone's memory! (And that was the reason why UCSD immediately dissolved their football team. They've never had one since.)
So yeah, sure, we were politically active. What can you do, when your nation is involved in a suicidal romantic venture like Vietnam? Of course 1968 saw the almost complete dissolution of the Democratic Party. And so much else seemed to teeter on the edge of madness. You hope the nation can ride it out. And we did, barely. And we can do it, again.
Do I continue to be political? Well, one of the books I published, just in 2020, was Polemical Judo. It got very little attention from the political or pundit castes, but the book is all about jujitsu political techniques that nobody on the union side of this phase of the American Civil War—and I think we're in phase eight of that 250 year sibling spat over mind and honor and human destiny— that no one seems able or willing to contemplate. Agile methods to try to deal with the tsunami of lies.
The lesson? Maybe I should stay in my lane.
ZIERLER: When you were at Caltech, were you aware what a glaring omission it was that there were no women undergraduates at Caltech? Was that something that was self-apparent?
BRIN: Well, yes. Look, even those of us who considered ourselves to be feminists back then were pretty much troglodytes by today's standards. But sure, we all wanted the hoary old all-male policy to end. And it did. First, my freshman year, they started bringing in a larger number of female grad scientists, and special one-year visiting undergrads, as an experiment. Then, in 1970, instead of setting up a separate women's dorm, they were admitted into all the student houses. I still have friends from that clade of very brave young women.
Did it improve life on campus? Well, at first it racked up tension even higher. Because until the female population reaches about 30% or so, it's really an anomalous and nervous situation. But it was a transition that had to be gotten through and those pioneers were terrific. Now I think it's darn close to 50%, so mazal tov!
ZIERLER: Were you involved formally in some of the student committees that were agitating for women to be admitted as undergraduates?
BRIN: It was already planned out by the time I came as a freshman. You should ask one of the farts who are even older than me. Now, I did help mentor a few of the first women undergrads. I helped them find their way around and offered my ear or my shoulder. But it's not to say I did anything particularly special.
ZIERLER: In talking to these women, what struck you about their decision to come to Caltech?
BRIN: Oh, some of them were awesomely courageous. They wanted to forge new frontiers. But if you get accepted to Caltech, it does take a bit of a force of will to say, "Oh, I'm going to turn that down."
ZIERLER: Is your sense that this was entirely a bottom-up approach, that it was the scientists who were pushing for this decision to be made, or were there any allies in administration or faculty who also were pushing for this?
BRIN: Oh no, I think it was to a fairly large degree the faculty and administration agreed with the students that the times, they are a changin'. Though a lot of undergraduates at Caltech are just swimming to survive.
ZIERLER: Anybody stick out in your memory among faculty or administration that were really pioneers in supporting this decision, really were out in front on the issue?
BRIN: Well, Lee DuBridge, of course. I think that Peter Goldreich was out in front. Feynman spoke up for egalitarianism. But I really wouldn't have been in much of a position to say. Who's going to confide all these ruminations in a Caltech freshman? Sorry.
ZIERLER: How much ultimately were you there to see women as part of the undergraduate student body? Was it just the one year?
BRIN: Oh no, they arrived my junior year, and so it was junior year, senior year, and my additional quarter. I saw them involved in their struggles. Those pioneers had extra pressures to undergo, which were partly compensated for by the extra eagerness of anyone around them to provide help, if asked. But I'm not going to minimize the degree to which these were heroes who deserve a debt of gratitude from everyone, not just the subsequent generations of women Techers.
A woman at Caltech right now is writing one of the books in my Out of Time series. Oh! I should mention, I met my current wife—Cheryl Brigham—34 years ago, when she was a graduate student at Caltech. She finished her doctoral defense, I finished my novel Earth, and sold off all our property, bought round-the-world passes, and zigzagged around the globe for exactly a year, arriving back in L.A. a year to the day laterm when our passes expired, so we could get married. Now, sure, 11 months of that year was spent in Paris, for her postdoc, so it's not quite this romantic year zigzagging around the world. We spent most of it slumming on the left bank. Oh, what misery. So, our kids are doubly Caltech blessed? Cursed? Well, there it is..
ZIERLER: Just a few more questions to round out this story. As you said, times were a-changin'. Was your sense that Caltech, relative to its peer institutions in higher education, was behind the times in admitting women to the undergraduate student body?
BRIN: Well, of course, but there was a pretty thick monastic tradition still, in those days. When I worked at Mount Wilson one summer, I stayed in the ‘monastery.' If you look at the cloaks that PhDs wear at commencements, ask one take off the silly mortar board hat and pull up the cowl! It's a monk's cowl. (I'm always disappointed when I give commencements and I don't see any newly fledged ‘doctors' doing that. Maybe shuffling to the Monty Python chant. [Brin makes a bonk sound, smacking his head.] So remember you are embedded in history and traditions that seemed important to earlier generations. tStill, Bob Dylan was out there—the times, they are a-changin'—and most people knew it was, knew it was changin'.
Another example: in the student house, we still had dress dinners three or four nights a week. Now, by the time I got there things had relaxed; all you needed was a sport jacket and either a turtleneck or a tie, but on those evenings, everybody sat up straighter. There was just something about it. A lot of the guys hated it, and when the tradition finally went away completely, they were happy. Me? I was glad to sit up straight and look people in the eye instead of watching them just shovel in food with an entrenching tool. Believe it or not, guys would bring dates to Friday night dinner, because it was kind of cool, the formality and all of that. All that went away within a year of the women arriving.
Now, I'm not claiming that's their fault. The fact of the matter is—again—times, they were a-changin', and fast. But, maybe the complainers, that this is going to destroy the elan of academic life, maybe they had a 1% point. But they were 99% completely wrong. As an earlier generation was wrong when they excluded folks of my ethnicity, and so many others.
Our job then—and it remains the task at Tech today—was to become enlightened, exploratory, and fearless scientists. And that means stopping all waste of talent! Prejudice isn't just evil. It's also stupid. Among most of the great arguments of the enlightenment and American political life today revolve around the question, "Why on Earth would you want to waste talent?"
ZIERLER: In the small role that you played, what are you most proud of, in helping foster this transition?
BRIN: I'm most proud that the women undergraduates who I mentored—not a huge number—generally thought of me as being more a good friend than a geeky twit.
ZIERLER: There's two basic motivations why Caltech would take this decision to admit women to the undergraduate student body. One is that it's the right thing to do, that you're responding to the times. The other is more a matter of self-interest, that it's better for Caltech. It improves Caltech as an institution to have women as part of the undergraduate student body. To the extent—
BRIN: I don't see any conflict between the two.
ZIERLER: No, not that there's a conflict, but the question is, to the extent that you have stayed in touch, you've followed how Caltech has developed, how have you seen that to be a true statement, that the admittance of women obviously has improved Caltech, has made it a better place?
BRIN: When you double your potential sources of talent, you are going to double your likelihood of bringing in people who can make use of the unique experience that Caltech offers.
ZIERLER: It's as simple as that.
BRIN: I do think it's simple as that. It's usually as simple as that. Most issues of justice, or I would say at least 60% of all issues of justice, boil down to "Stop wasting talent."
ZIERLER: Before we finish, will you bear with me and pick up an interesting earlier thread? Casually referencing the golem of Prague suggests to me that you might be Jewish.
BRIN: Well, yes, I have that background, and passed it forward. The notion that the world can be both imperfect and that it needs us is one that appears in my fiction. I find it difficult to accept that this world was made flawless, because it is not and never was. Clearly, we are picking up the tools of creation! We've crept into the laboratory within which creation was made, whether by a personified being or by a series of circumstances. That ‘laboratory door' was left open. The lights were on. The Bunsen burners were lit. I mean, if we weren't invited in, and have real work to do, then somebody made a serious mistake.
ZIERLER: [laughs] It is of course a Jewish concept that God created the world for us to perfect.
BRIN: Yes, of course. The notion that this world is imperfect but also worthwhile and improvable.
If you look at human history, many of the great sages concluded – as Plato did in the Allegory of the Cave -- that our senses are imperfect. That it is useless to seek some perfect representation of objective reality. We always will be delusional. This was said not just by Plato and Socrates but also by Buddha, Jesus, Lao-Tzu, and many others. And thus far, who can disagree? Humans not only have imperfect senses, but we are inherently delusional, often preferring a subjective incantation over discomforting disproof.
That far, the sages nearly all agreed, reaching a common conclusion— "therefore give up!" Give up on this imperfect world. Accept your perpetual inability to know what is objectively true. Instead, seek "truth" through… take your pick. Abnegation of the soul, or through pure logic, or contemplation, or prayer. If the prescriptions varied, the diagnosis was always the same.
That is, until Galileo came along, and said, "You're right. As a fallible, gullible human, I can never know what is objectively true. And yet, even though we will never know what – say - this table in front of us really is, we can carve away experimentally to determine what it's not."
Science can do that. We don't prove truths, we carve away what's not true. Failed models and cool theories that were demolished by experiment. Science doesn't tell you what's true. Science reveals a myriad things that aren't. It's incremental. And hence, despite Plato's yammering exhortations to give up on reality, we can and do move forward.
One of the problems in America, in the West and around the world, is that those who dislike the current enlightenment experiment are trying to do the same things that earlier opponents did to Periclean enlightenment in Athens, then to DaVinci's Florence, and that they almost succeeded doing to Renaissance Amsterdam, and that they've tried to do to this prodigiously bold and successful experiment, every generation for 250 years. The alternative we're offered is to plunge back into that old pyramid of feudalism, where truth is declared from the top, instead of independently checkable by free-thinking citizens. Sure, we have many experts in a myriad fields! But hierarchy doesn't suit scientists very well. They are the most competitive humans our species ever produced!
So, it's a process, a serious process that requires a relatively flat social system. Otherwise? 6,000 years of history show those at the top will always declare some truth and hire guys in spangled robes to tell everyone else, "You better believe this or else."
ZIERLER: So a lot is riding on us keeping the faith, so to speak?
BRIN: Yeah, it's a taty irony. We must believe in the potential of a species who differ not at all, genetically, from cave-folk and sword-swingers… in our potential to combine cooperation with fair competition and with reason and art and compassion… but especially the personal courage and integrity to recite the sacred catechism of science. "I might be wrong; let's find out."
But that's enough pomposity for one day. Tell you what—email me, and I will respond with links to any of the things that I mentioned, like my YA series, or the video trailer to Existence.
BRIN: I'm looking forward to it.
ZIERLER: David, thank you so much. Thank you specifically for struggling through with your voice. I'm really glad we were able to do this. Fantastic perspective that you've provided. I do appreciate it.