Jun 16 2008
Thanks to Tsvi Bisk and Mike Zorn for their interesting comments about the oil problem, space-impact threats, and the Manhattan Project, relative to my recent post (“The God Particle and 21st Century Waves”). I chatted about the Superconducting Super Collider as a macro-engineering project (MEP), and applied a few lessons of the last 200 years. Here, I’ll elaborate further on the way that MEPs really work.
In Cordell (2006) I adopted the definition of an MEP from Eugene Ferguson (1916-2004), who was a well-known professor of engineering and later history, a founding member and former president (1977-78) of the Society for the History of Technology, and a da Vinci Medalist (SHoT’s highest honor) in 1977. According to Ferguson, MEPs are: 1) at the state-of-the-art of technology for their time; 2) extremely expensive and usually large in size; and 3) sometimes practical in purpose, but often they are aimed at satisfying intangible needs of a spiritual or psychological nature and are highly inspiring.
This is a demanding definition that excludes many extraordinary projects like trans-continental railroads or large highway systems because, while expensive and significant, they do not stretch technology. Notice that the MEPs of the last 200 years listed in Table 1 (not intended to be an exhaustive list) of Cordell (2006) — e.g., Suez Canal, Great Eastern, Panama Canal, Titanic, Apollo program — definitely align with Ferguson.
Is Bisk’s admirable idea of “Getting the U.S. off imported oil in 10 years…” a Ferguson-style MEP? Not by the definition above because it relates closely to survival. For an affluent superpower like the U.S., survival is an expectation not an inspiration (Ferguson’s point 3). Currently, it appears to me that U.S. politicians do not yet perceive the public’s increasing annoyance with skyrocketing gas prices as a true crisis, although that may change soon.
What about Bisk’s suggestion that a planetary defense system (PDS) against asteroids/comets would be a popular MEP? PDS is like oil except that dangerous space impacts are assumed to be very unlikely by the public. It may take a tragic impact (or near impact) to realign public beliefs. In the meantime, it’s probably best to develop PDS as part of the increasing human operations infrastructure in Earth-Moon space that’s expected during the 2015 Maslow Window.
Zorn is right about the A-bomb project; it’s not a Ferguson-style MEP because it’s a weapon and a big secret before 1945. However, the last 200 years teach us that inspirational, Ferguson-style MEPs tend to cluster near peaks in the 56 year energy/economy wave, but large initiatives associated with survival — even including wars (e.g., War on Terror) — can occur at any time. More on this in future posts.