“What we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the race of life,” Percival Lowell wrote in The Atlantic in 1895, in an article excerpted on page 80 of this issue. Lowell, an astronomer, had glimpsed through the newly powerful telescopes of his era what appeared to be “a network of fine, straight dark lines” on the surface of Mars, lines that reminded him of irrigation canals, canals that seemed to be evidence of an advanced race, maybe “intelligent beings, although physically they be utterly unlike us, more goblins than men or animals.”
Long before the Curiosity rover began trundling about on Mars last summer—in fact, by the early 20th century—other astronomers concluded that the lines were just an optical illusion. But Lowell was no fool. A mathematician, businessman, and expert on Japan, among other subjects, he was the first person to establish a permanent observatory at a remote, elevated location (in Flagstaff, Arizona), and, believing that some as-yet-unseen “Planet X” was orbiting in the neighborhood of Uranus and Neptune, he embarked on a search that led to the discovery of Pluto, whose name was derived in part from his initials.
Even Lowell’s canals turned out to have their value, igniting the imaginations of many others, including Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. As for the search for extraterrestrial life, it, of course, goes on. Having upended conventional wisdom by discovering scores of planets in other solar systems, the astronomer Geoff Marcy, one of the Brave Thinkers we feature in this issue, has turned his attention to seeking out new civilizations. If he doesn’t find anything, he says, “I won’t think of that as failure; I’ll think of it as information. We humans may realize that we are carrying the ball for intelligent life in this sector of the Milky Way.” Michael Bloomberg described a similar experimental approach in our interview on page 66, observing that even a government initiative that hits a dead end makes a contribution, “because we know we don’t have to go down that path again.” But, he adds, “in the press, they call it failure. And so people are unwilling to innovate, unwilling to take risks.”
With this issue, we try to shine a light on the kind of thinking that takes a chance, the approach that The Atlantic has promoted since its founding. We’ve included samples from our archives, highlighting some notions we got wrong (those canals), and others we got more or less right (Vannevar Bush, in 1945, anticipating “translucent screens” that would serve up a person’s “books, records, and communications”).
We can’t, of course, be certain which arguments we make today will stand the tests of experience and advancing technology. But the exercise of trying to anticipate the consequences of change illuminates the world we are already living in. In envisioning how the presidential genome might prove vulnerable, the authors of “Hacking the President’s DNA” reveal just how rapidly genetic science is advancing—how, as genetics becomes another form of information technology, our ability to manipulate or even create new life right here on Earth is already outstripping our ethical and political imagination.
And for a case study in what happens when flexible, creative thinking gives way to a culture of risk-avoidance, in how a fear of failure can beget failure, I recommend you read Tom Ricks’s indictment of the Army’s leadership ranks. He argues that the tactical excellence of our enlisted soldiers has helped camouflage the strategic incompetence of our generals in two failed wars. “The serious failures of our military leaders in these conflicts have escaped almost all notice,” Ricks writes. “No one is pushing those leaders to step back and examine the shortcomings of their institution.” Those soldiers and their country deserve better.
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