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Peter Thiel: we must stop fearing the future

The co-founder of PayPal, Facebook board member and hugely successful venture capitalist is disappointed in the future. He doesn’t think we’re ambitious enough.

The Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel – a co-founder of PayPal, Facebook board member and hugely successful venture capitalist – is disappointed in the future. He doesn’t think we’re ambitious enough.

Someone living in 1964 might have imagined that in 2014 we’d be enjoying jet packs and moon hotels. Instead, we have to make do with Instagram and Segways. What’s worse, according to Thiel, is that our “financial and capitalistic” age is not bothered that we’re not doing as well as we should. The premise of his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Start-ups, or How to Build the Future, is that the most advanced economies of the world have been experiencing a four-decade lull in innovation – and that is because we’ve stopped daring to dream big.

Thiel’s ambitions for the 21st century are unusual – he’s an avowed libertarian and wants to build floating cities in the Pacific where businesses can work free from government regulation. As a member of the so-called “PayPal Mafia”, he is friends with the Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, but lacks Musk’s charisma. Some journalists have compared Thiel to a robot, which doesn’t seem fair, though he was dry and serious when we met at a hotel in central London to discuss his book.

Zero to One is adapted from a class Thiel gave at Stanford in 2012 and is primarily a business text. His theory is that monopolies are good and capitalist competition is bad. He defines success for start-ups as creating a product, industry or science that nobody else has thought of, instead of just besting a competitor.

“As a founder you want to build a new monopoly,” he said. “It may not last for ever but if it lasts for a few decades that’s pretty good. ” He cites Steve Jobs’s launch of the Apple iPhone as a success story.

Free capital: a winning design for one of Peter Thiel's floating cities. Image: Andras Gyorfi

The larger picture Thiel paints in his book is that western society lacks “hubris” and is suffused with a psychological malaise he calls “indefinite pessimism” – a sensation in which “you generally have no idea of the future, but it’s vaguely the same to worse”. He believes that people are not only unsure of what the future will bring, they are scared of it.

“You look at the science-fiction movies that Hollywood makes, and they all show technology that’s destructive – it doesn’t work, it kills people,” he said. “I saw Gravity recently, and you’d never want to go into outer space; you’d want to stay on a muddy island somewhere.”

This lack of a coherent vision is holding everyone back, he argues. Unlike many other libertarians, Thiel believes that governments can be a source of innovation, but he bemoans modern bureaucracy and says none of the US government’s previous successes, such as the Apollo space programme, could be repeated today. “Now,” he told me, “a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room.”

He has a blind spot, however, when it comes to considering who should benefit from a hi-tech future. Although he points out that many successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are “white men”, he doesn’t believe this is because the likes of Bill Gates have social and economic advantages. “Luck is just an atheistic word for ‘God’,” he says, a catch-all that “covers up the laziness in our thinking”.

Thiel is a unique figure in Silicon Valley because he doesn’t care so much about making things faster or bigger: he wants to make them better. Although management texts often pose as works of philosophy, Zero to One is a serious read. Above all, it offers rare insight into how one of the few titans of 21st-century capitalism thinks. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

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The Earth moved: how we discovered ripples in space time

A new book charts the decades-long search to measure gravitational waves.

Monday 14 September 2015 was no ordinary day. At exactly 09:50:45 Universal Time, for one-fifth of a second, the Earth was stretched and squeezed by a tenth of a quintillionth of one per cent. Everything on the planet expanded and contracted as it did by one part in 1021 (1 followed by 21 noughts). It was proof that after a decades-long search, scientists had finally developed instruments sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves – ripples in space-time that were 10,000 times smaller than the nucleus of a hydrogen atom.

That at least begins to take care of when, where and what happened that Monday morning. In this engaging book the Dutch science writer Govert Schilling goes on to deal with the who and why by telling the tale of those involved in making what has been dubbed by some as “the discovery of the century” and the reason those unimaginably tiny ripples in space-time originated in a catastrophic event 1.3 billion years ago in a galaxy far, far away.

The “who” starts with a 36-year-old German physicist who in 1915 had just completed his masterwork, general relativity. In Albert Einstein’s new theory, gravity was due to the warping of space by the presence of mass. The Earth moves around the sun not because some mysterious invisible force pulls it, but because the warping of space tells matter how to move, while matter tells space how to curve. General relativity revealed that the familiar three-dimensions of space and the passage of time are not independent and absolute but are woven together into a four-dimensional fabric called space-time.

Einstein was fallible. Although vibrations in the fabric of space-time are a distinctive consequence of general relativity, Einstein wrote that “there are no gravitational waves”. He soon changed his mind; but the hunt for gravity waves using detectors in the lab would not begin until the late 1950s.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, LIGO, was given the green light in 1990 by the US National Science Foundation, despite a $300 million price tag. By 2015 the project involved two similar detectors housed in facilities some 3,000 kilometres apart – one in Hanford, Washington State, the other in Livingston, Louisiana. A single detector would register microseismic events, such as passing cars; to exclude these false alarms, experimenters would take note only of events that showed up in both detectors within a few milliseconds of each other.

In the LIGO detectors, laser beams are fired along 4km-long L-shaped vacuum pipes and reflected from mirrors at each end. By analysing the light beams, it is possible to detect changes in the distance between the mirrors, which increases and decreases as space expands and contracts due to a passing gravitational wave. But the effect is tiny because gravity is a weak force and space-time is not easy to flex, bend, stretch or compress. A lot of energy is required for the tiniest ripples. Even pairs of stars orbiting each other don’t generate gravitational waves that LIGO can detect; but events involving black holes would.

Black holes, another prediction of general relativity, are the remnants of stars many times more massive than the sun. These stars burn brightly, and in their death throes, signalled by going supernova, their inner part collapses to form a black hole.

GW150914, the first gravitational wave detected by LIGO on 14 September 2015, was produced by the merger of two black holes that were 36 and 29 times as massive as the sun. As those two black holes orbited each other 1.3 billion years ago, they generated minute ripples in space-time that propagated with the speed of light. The waves carried away energy, causing the two holes to spiral ever closer, orbiting each other hundreds of times a second. As space-time was stretched and squeezed, the tiny perturbations grew into massive waves. When the two black holes collided and merged into one, a tsunami of gravitational waves was generated. These cataclysmic collisions happen less than once in a million years in our galaxy, but there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

“When I am judging a theory, I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way,” Einstein once confessed. Perhaps only he or Newton could get away with such a statement; the rest have to rely on the close relationship between theoretical insight and experimental scrutiny that lies at the heart of the scientific method. Wherever evidence can be coaxed out of nature, it corroborates or refutes a theory and serves as the sole arbiter of validity. Gravity waves are another tick for general relativity and the first direct proof of the existence of black holes; all other evidence has been circumstantial.

The hunt for gravity waves is over, but gravitational wave astronomy may help solve some mysteries that continue to baffle physicists: such as the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which together make up 96 per cent of the universe.

Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy
Govert Schilling
Harvard-Belknap, 340pp, £23.95

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear