Remember Neil Armstrong with space exploration that actually matters

Don't put someone on Mars just for the sake of it. Build a space elevator and democratise the final frontier.

On Saturday afternoon, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died in Ohio of heart problems that came following bypass surgery. He was 82.

His death has struck home the failure of mankind to build on the legacy of exploration that his generation left us. Just 24 men have travelled beyond low Earth orbit, and just 12 have set foot on an extraterrestrial surface. Of those 12, eight remain, and none were born after 1935. Space travel is an old man's game, it seems.

Coming so soon after the success of the Mars Science Laboratory's mission – when NASA landed a nuclear-powered, laser-armed, one-tonne rover on the red planet – all eyes have naturally turned to the only other planet in the solar system which humans could realistically walk on. (Mercury and Venus would kill you in seconds, the gas giants are, well, gas, and Pluto is so cold oxygen freezes.)

Martin Robbins, for instance, writes in the Guardian:

Curiosity made us what we are: the instinct that makes us click an interesting link on Twitter is the same force that built our cities and hospitals and carried us on rocket ships to the moon. It may not be rational, but we didn't get where we are by being an entirely rational species – we did it by trying things, and failing pretty much most of the time. It's time for someone to step up and show us all that we still have that drive, that when we have the guts to unleash that curiosity – and the guts to fail – we can still achieve greatness. Neil Armstrong's death is a wake-up call, a challenge to our generation. We can go to Mars, and it doesn't need a miracle: we just need to decide to go.

But no matter how impressive the trip to the Moon was, we mustn't forget that it was as much a product of imperialistic showmanship as an urge for exploration. America went, not to indulge their, and our, curiosity, but to shove a big, lunar, stars and stripes in the face of the Russians.

That doesn't lessen the magnitude of the achievement, but it does put a question mark over the idea of repeating it.

We know we can put people on Mars. The technical aspects are tricky, but not much more so than putting an SUV-sized rover there. Almost more difficult are the social aspects; the crew would be in near-isolation for around two years, with only each other and low-bandwidth links to Earth for company. Probably best to keep sharp objects safely stowed away.

And there's not actually a huge amount of curiosity which would be sated. We've sent four science labs to Mars, of increasing complexity. We've got hi-def photography, 3D scenes, panoramas; we've got chemical analysis of the rocks, satellite pics of geographic features and left miles of wheel grooves from exploration. In short, we've got everything other than a photo of a person standing on the planet.

If we are to use the death of the old generation of explorers to spur on a revival in the idea for this generation, let's also learn from their mistakes. Don't follow a paradigm which results in 0.0000003 per cent of the planet making it out of orbit; create a new one, which lets this massive achievement change the lives of many, rather than a lucky (or foolhardy) few.

In short, we need to build a space elevator.

Forbes' Bruce Dorminey explains:

The basic concept involves carbon nanotube ribbon stretching from sea level to 100,000 km up; well beyond the altitude of geosynchronous orbit (35,800 km). Earth’s gravity at the lower end of the ribbon, and a counterweight and outward centripetal acceleration at the high end of the ribbon, would keep the elevator’s “cable” taut and stationary over a single, fixed ground-based position. Robotic climbers would ascend the ribbon to various earth orbits and potentially enable the launch of spacecraft to destinations throughout the solar system.

There are a few problems to overcome, the main one being that we don't yet have any material which is strong enough to stop the cable from snapping due to the stress. But if you had told someone in 1954, the year Sputnik began development, that by 1969 there would be two people on the moon, they would likely have had the same objections.

And a space elevator frees us from the wasteful excesses of space flight. You would no longer have to strap yourself to the top of a bomb to get out of the earth's gravity well (the carbon emissions alone ought to give pause for thought – each launch of the space shuttle produces 28 tons of CO2 just from the engines, equivalent to driving a car for just under five years. And that's not counting all the rest of the operations involved in running the space centre). The cost of getting things into low-earth orbit would plummet. And if you did still want to go to Mars, it's a heck of a lot easier to do so in a rocket which is already in space by the time it sets off.

If we want to remember the pioneers of the 20th century, lets not do so with vanity projects of dying empires, but with exploration which really makes a difference. Let's build a space elevator.

A concept of a space elevator. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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We're asking the wrong questions about the Google “anti-diversity memo”

Which sex is better at what skills is less important than which skills we value in the first place. 

Yes, I feel sorry for the Google employee who has been fired for writing an "anti diversity manifesto" and circulating it within the company. (Guess what? It leaked.) Losing your job is painful, and doing it in public is even more so. But the conversation around this is heading in such an unproductive direction (do women suck at maths?) that I can't resist wading in.

I agree with the writer that these issues are hard to talk about, but that pushback comes from both directions. Look at the crap Mary Beard is wading through for trying to inject some facts into a discussion about the racial composition of Roman Britain. Nicholas Nassim Taleb keeps honking about "diversity genes" and refusing to listen to evidence that contradicts him. But in his mind, he's Mr Science - sorry, Professor Science - and she's Madam Arts-Subject.

This matters, because when it comes to diversity, there are fact-based positions on both sides. Yet there is a certain strand of Rational Internet Thinker (let's be honest, mostly men) who solemnly tells everyone that we Must Stick To The Facts while advancing deeply ideological stances, which only happen to look "natural" because they are so embedded in our culture. 

But back to the subject at hand. Here's the recap: the memo was headlined  "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber" and its writer's firing will be taken as confirmation that his thesis was true. Ironically, this will be done by the same section of the right which usually has no problem with firing at will and normally thinks that HR should be a brutally Darwinian process. (Looked at from that perspective, of course Google would fire someone who brought such criticism on the company.) But now there are Principles involved. Probably Free Speech is under attack. Political Correctness may even have Gone Mad. Social Justice Warriors are on the march. Before it's all placards as far as the eye can see, instead I would like to look at what was actually said, and whether it's an argument with any merit. 

In essence, the memo argued that the gender imbalance of staff in tech companies like Google is primarily the result of biological, not cultural differences. ("They’re universal across human cultures," it argued. "They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone".) There are differences in ability between the sexes, the writer said, and that's why most top programmers are men. Men like numbers, and the numbers like them right back.

The memo added:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

The section about typically female traits is also interesting, because of a couple of points the writer picks out.

"Women, on average, have more...

- Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

- These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

- Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.

- Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.  

Well, SOMEONE has been reading their Simon Baron Cohen. The first point is a distillation of Baron Cohen's argument about "male brains" being better at understanding systems, and "female brains" being better at feelings - which he extends to say that autistic traits might be an "extreme male brain". Unsurprisingly, there are other scientists in the field, such as Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young, who find a lot of the neuroscience of sex difference quite flaky.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but from a lay perspective, my take is that yes, there are some biological differences between the average male and female brain, but that these pale beside a) the way our brain architecture is shaped by stimuli (like years of being told you're rubbish at maths) and b) the overall effect of culture (eg companies which value presenteeism, or make it hard for women to return after having children, or cover up for senior men who are repeated sexual harassers etc etc). 

The "higher agreeableness" point was dealt with by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Women aren't stupidly not asking for raises or being assertive in the office because they are delicate little flowers. One of the reasons they are more agreeable at work is because they face heavier penalties if they are not. As Sandberg formulates it: "Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Women are nicer because there are more negative consequences for them if they are not nice.

The last point about neuroticism is bleakly funny, because while women might report more anxiety, men commit suicide in far greater numbers. Which gender is really more susceptible to stress and anxiety? Women talking more about their mental health on "Googlegeist" is being held against them here, when possibly one of the reasons that more men kill themselves is because of the stigma of talking about their feelings.

Overall, the memo makes some compelling points, but it also chucks in a lot of stuff that "everyone knows" about sex differences, which isn't scientifically supported, and also some evolutionary psychology about "protecting females" which strays into the kind of rhetoric found on MRA sites. Its understanding of male and female work patterns can also be naive, for example:

"Yes, in a national aggregate, women have lower salaries than men for a variety of reasons. For the same work though, women get paid just as much as men. Considering women spend more money than men and that salary represents how much the employees sacrifices (e.g. more hours, stress, and danger), we really need to rethink our stereotypes around power."  

I mean, doesn't this just raise a huge number of questions?

How often do men and women do the same work, and for what reasons might they not? (Clue: women do far more unpaid care work and housework.) Are women spending that money on themselves, or are they running household budgets, which is an unpaid project-management task they are doing alongside any paid work? What an individual finds stressful is also entirely subjective.

The author chucks in a reference to "Marxist intellectuals" but doesn't seem to have read any of the vast and fascinating literature on unpaid care and its interaction with paid work. I'd recommend starting with The Second Shift or Wife Work. Angela Saini's Inferior is a good recent choice, too, on women's overlooked contributions to science.

When I talk about feminism with self-styled rationalist men, this dynamic comes up again and again. They will present my arguments as mere anecdote and emotion, which - sad shake of the head - is contradicted by the available evidence. When you point to peer-reviewed studies, or great ethnographies, supporting your point, which they haven't bothered to read, they steam on regardless. It makes the contest deeply unequal. Internet skeptic types talk about the need to engage with writers they don't agree with, and the importance of free and open debate, but often actually don't want to read the contrary view. 

 

***

If you want to read more about the discussion of the science of sex differences which has arisen as a result of this memo, then this piece by Slate Star Codex is interesting - it argues that interest in STEM subjects, not ability, might be the key difference between the sexes. It also completely misses the point. 

Here's a thought experiment. Say you were recruiting for a spoon-juggler. Your advert would probably mention "needs to juggle spoons". But, almost certainly, there would be other skills involved. Turning up to performances on time. Keeping your spoon inventory in check. Not turning up drunk. Not stealing forks from the fork-juggler. 

This is what the argument that women can't succeed in tech because they are innately bad at the skills needed to succeed in tech sounds like to me. We know that many of the early programmers were women, back when the job was considered to be largely secretarial. (Go watch Hidden Figures for more on this, and also because it's just a lovely film and I am so happy for Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson.) We know that the fastest way to depress wages in a job is to feminise its workforce. It's not unreasonable to wonder if we've constructed the whole idea of "success in tech" in such a way that it makes men's success look natural and pre-ordained. Yes, you need to be able to code to be a coder. But there are other skills you need too. 

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google, makes this argument better than I could. And he seems to own a pair of testicles, so you know he's more rational and objective than me:

"Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialised to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones."

As I said on Twitter, this is a pattern we see again and again - a high status job is coded as "male", requiring "male" traits, to justify men's dominance of it. The same thing happens in politics: we are assured that politicians need to be "strong" and "decisive", when many of the most successful male politicians today have incredible people skills. Jeremy Corbyn makes time for everyone he meets, hugging them and posing for endless selfies. Sadiq Khan has that Queen Mum ability to remember your name and a key fact about you. What's the real difference between the Clintons? Bill demonstrated huge empathy and made people he was talking to feel special; Hillary didn't. But still, maybe men dominate politics because they are just more aggressive and ambitious. Yeah, OK. 

Tech suffers from a similar silent rewriting of core competencies to flatter its mostly male leaders.

We have all these conversations about how hard it is for Mark Zuckerberg to make the leap to being a frontman CEO because he's a maths guy, not a people guy. We treat this like he's doing an amazing project of personal growth. We don't go, "wow, they really lowered the bar for CEOs to let someone without some of the key skills have a go at it". Or, "his poor colleagues, having to make up for the stuff he's not naturally gifted at". 

There was a similar reaction when Sergey Brin and Larry Page brought in Eric Schmidt when it was time for Google to "grow up". We didn't say, "How embarrassing, they have to find someone to counteract their deficiencies." We said: "Smart move. Not every human can possess all skills, it's wise to have a range of experience and aptitudes at the top of your company."

So this, for me, is the most interesting takeaway from the Google memo. "Do women suck at maths" is a complicated question, and I'm not sure how far answering it will move the conversation forwards. "Have we structured society so that those competitions between the sexes that men can win are deemed to be the most important competitions?" is a better one.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.