Across the Universe: Techie Dreams

This column first appeared in The Tablet in May, 2008, under the title "The Magic is Real"

 In his workshop, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) works on his Mark III armor in "Iron Man." Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment;  Photo credit Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures.

In his workshop, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) works on his Mark III armor in "Iron Man." Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment; Photo credit Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures.

I have a friend who has found a new drug: it can keep him awake and programming at his computer for 36 hours straight, without too many bad side effects… or so he claims. I think he’s nuts; aside from the obvious dangers of self-prescribing anything, I happen myself to find sleeping to be a beautifully spiritual experience. (At least, that’s what I tell the homilist after Mass.) But I was struck mostly by the motivation behind my friend’s drug abuse. He is so passionately in love with being alive and doing his work that he resents having to waste eight hours sleeping every night.

That passion is one of the great things about being a techie. It is illustrated wonderfully in the comic-book movie, Iron Man. There, the techie hero Tony Stark builds a mechanical suit that allows him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. All my techie friends agree, the most thrilling scenes are not the flights through space or the battles against the bad guys (well done, indeed, but nothing we haven’t seen before); rather, it’s the sequence showing the hero building and de-bugging his equipment. The thrill is in the making.

Yes, the techie worldview has its limits. (What worldview doesn’t?) I’ve discussed before the odd view of religion many techies have. There is a tendency to know-it-all arrogance that gives a new spin to Anne LaMott’s famous dictum that “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty.” Some of them are so certain, they have no room for faith and its attendant doubts, and it makes them easy prey for all sorts of gnostic nonsense. The fact that the rest of the world finds your opinions to be madness just reinforces your own sense of being smarter than everyone else.

The only people who can knock the rough edges off of techie arrogance are other techies. Fortunately, for all that techies bear a reputation for being socially-inept, there is a large techie subculture – like-minded folk who met at engineering school and who constantly cross paths as their jobs move them from project to project.

They delight in gatherings of the clan. Science fiction conventions often have extensive programming on the latest developments in science and engineering, quite independent of anything that’s appeared in the fictional world – yet. “Maker Faire” gatherings at county fairgrounds (the most recent near San Francisco earlier this month) offer a chance for basement mad scientists to “Build. Craft. Hack. Play. Make.”– and to show off their results. Friends of mine, far less formally organized, gather every summer on a remote patch of wasteland Somewhere in Northern Michigan to set off home-made rockets and play with things that make a Big Boom. It’s a family affair; kids are taught safety rules in a setting they won’t forget.

This techie sense of camaraderie, this zest for life, is a side of science and engineering that stands in stark (a la Tony Stark) contrast to typical adolescent cynicism and ennui. Pundits despair at the shortage of engineering students nowadays; kids need to know that the magic is real. I devoured the Harry Potter books with a deep nostalgia for my days of study at MIT. You can be a wizard if you really want; you just have to overcome your fear of maths.

A sunny May morning reminds us all of why we love nature. The techie finds an intimate expression of that love in observing, building, and participating in its laws. It’s not just to solve problems; it is for its own sheer delight. In the same way, it was not just to redeem mankind that God sent his Son; but first of all, because He so loved this world.

In August, I will be guest of honor at Musecon in Chicago, a gathering of techie-makers.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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Across the Universe: Techie Dreams — 1 Comment

  1. I have been “playing” with Kerbal Space Program for 2 weeks now; KSP is a Space Program Simulator where you can build, debug, test, and fly rockets into orbit, and beyond. I have spent HOURS, sometimes well into the night, debugging different rocket stages to achieve various milestones. I frequently thought about the Iron Man suit development scenes while I was modifying rockets. Expect to see a full article on KSP soon.

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