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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Taking notes as an intellectual holds court: cool ideas Ben Bova shared on an OASIS Panel

Ben Bova was one of the great authors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, back when all was spaceships and scientists saving the world. He has continued to publish up through the present, but he is perhaps better known as the editor of Analog during the 70s and the editorial director of Omni during the 80s--two of the most prominent science fiction magazines of all time. He was also past President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

I had the opportunity to attend a panel on which he sat at OASIS 28, the annual meeting of the Orlando Area Science Fiction Society. The panel title was Pessimism versus Optimism, and the other panelists were Ben Sperduto, Shaun Duke and Jeff Mitchell. One of the benefits of a small conference is you do get to know a lot of the participants, and I can say after hanging out with them that Shaun and Jeff are quite cool people. I didn't get to spend time with Sperduto. Bova, I only shook his hand and spoke briefly, but his comments were the ones that captivated me (although all panelists did contribute to the discussion in interesting ways--this was quite a good panel), and I figured I'd spend this post sharing some of them. As I had only pen and paper, I'm summarizing, but hopefully my transcription is close to accurate. I apologize in advance for any errors.

• Science fiction says to look at things in the long term. When you look back, you see how well we have succeeded as a human race. We'll be okay for a long time, until we create truly intelligent machines. Our future descendants are most likely machines.

• The biggest difference between humans and machines is that machines don't care. Empathy is a distinctly human quality; hormones drive most human decisions.

• Most anthropologists believe humans were at a peak of life expectancy in the Old Stone Age. Then agriculture turned us in the wrong direction. One of the other panelists (I believe Ben Sperduto, but it might have been Shaun Duke) added that analysis of a Roman turd indicated that humans of that time were infected by a large number of intestinal parasites and did not eat their veggies, despite the availability of vegetables and fruits. Between parasites and inflammation, humans probably spent very little time that they weren't in serious pain. Bova continued that human life span did not get back to what it was in pre-agricultural times until the early 20th century.

• Pursuing individual happiness generally leads to the destruction of a society. The prime example today is climate change. Our politicians have stupidly led us to the point where massive destruction is inevitable. It was avoidable at one point, had we competent politicians that would have taken the scientists seriously.

• Bova paraphrased Oppenheimer in speaking about the scientists' role in societal destruction: When a scientist sees a problem that's sweet, he goes about solving it and worries what to do about it later. [My interjection here: Bova's scientific credentials come from the 1950s physics/aerospace/engineering world. Others I have met from that era/world are consistent with the picture Bova paints. I'd argue he's not describing chemists/biologists/environmental scientists--the types I know better.]

• Laws and regulations are fundamentally reactive. Politics is the way humans get along. Politicians make decisions by criteria not of interest to the rest of us. Their priorities: 1) Get elected; 2) Get re-elected; 3) Don't get mad, get even.

Stuff to think about.

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