☞ The Magic of Small Institutions, the Moon Landing, and Heraldry

I was recently browsing the Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology, published in 1980 (not considered canon any longer, but super-interesting) and noticed that in the timeline it has some items for 2019:

If you’ve read lots of older science fiction, the gap between our expectations for the future of space travel and where we are now is certainly disappointing, but no longer a surprise. While our computers are far better than writers could have imagined, we have fallen short in the realm of outer space. There aren’t moon bases or regular missions to Mars or space colonies.

But as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing and look at that second item in the timeline—imagine visiting the moon as tourists and seeing these historic landmarks!—I can only think about how far we still are from our dreams.

That being said, we are closer in some ways than many realize. As per this NYT article:

Attempts to classify the Apollo landing sites as American national parks failed precisely because that would violate the Outer Space Treaty. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which designates world heritage sites, usually considers nominations only by countries exercising sovereignty over their proposed site — which can therefore only be on Earth.

In July 2011, NASA issued a nonbinding set of recommendations aimed at preserving the six Apollo “heritage” sites and their associated artifacts. At the time, private teams were racing to be first on the lunar surface to claim the Google Lunar X Prize, and one of the contest’s bonus prizes would go to a spacecraft that visited an Apollo site.

We might not yet be tourists in space, but at least we’re thinking ahead.

The evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner has a new book out called Life Finds a Way. Near the end, Wagner explores certain conditions for creativity within institutions. Looking to places like the Santa Fe Institute, he argues that these smaller institutions, when structured properly, are ideal places for cross-disciplinary interaction and creative recombination:

I love this detailed and prescriptive approach for these kinds of magical institutions, ones that are particularly well-suited for generalist-minded thinking. This pairs nicely with Patrick Collison’s collection of references about “successful industrial/applied research labs.”

I recently discovered a Wikipedia article that enumerates the technical terms for the positions of animals in heraldry, words for the pose of the animal, like if a lion is sitting or on its hind legs. The delightful number of words here is so strange and bonkers and precise, eg. pelican in her piety.

This kind of technical precision reminds me of the richness of the rules for names in astronomy, such as how “[s]atellites of Uranus are named after characters from works by William Shakespeare or Alexander Pope.” As per Clive Thompson, “Half the guys, I swear, if they weren’t mapping the stars with billion-dollar telescopes, they’d be out in California painting unicorns on the sides of vans.”

It seems to me that any field, if you go deep enough, is an amazing combination of awesome and super-weird. The world is amazing.

And check out An Animated Map of the Earth: basically watch the Earth “breathe” throughout the course of the year.

Until next time.

Enjoy this issue? Please feel free it to share it with a friend. (Also, I’m considering sending out this newsletter more frequently. Any thoughts on the ideal cadence?)