Investing in the future


I’m proud that my sixteen year-old son has chosen to tack a poster of Albert Einstein rather than Elvis or LeBron James on his bedroom wall. “I have no special talents,” Einstein says in bold black lettering, “I am only passionately curious.” But nowhere on that poster are the worry-wart concerns Einstein expressed to his scientific colleagues in 1952: “The scientist of today is distressed by the fact that the results of his scientific work have created a threat to mankind since they have fallen into the hands of morally blind exponents of political power…[and] that technological methods, made possible by [the scientist’s] work, have led to a concentration of economic and also of political power in the hands of small minorities which have come to dominate completely the lives of the masses of people.”

Too many words for a poster. And too much philosophizing, especially since Einstein admits he has no special talents. Our geniuses are especially useful to us when they stick to specialized tasks like doing the hard math we don’t really care about.

The Einstein poster came to mind when I was standing in line at the post office, behind a grandfatherly gent sporting a floppy Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. The post office, facing budget issues, had cut back on its workforce, so it had only two clerks on the job. We were in for a good long wait, and though the gent in front of me looked tired and wan he appeared affable and sane. Why not have a good social chat? I was curious about his thoughts.

Like good neighbors we immediately agreed to agree. It was cold outside. The line was too long. There was not enough help. Government spending needed to be restrained. There was a lot of waste. Oil cost too much. The gent’s SUV cost too much. Our wars cost too much, and they had soured us. We had propped up too many dictators and now we were stuck with them. A small minority of individuals were getting fabulously rich. Some people don’t earn their money, and too many are out of work. The economy needs fixing.

I offered a micro-suggestion for jumpstarting a solution to the immediate problem of waiting too long in the post office line: Impose a modest tax on immodestly wealthy millionaires.

His face seemed innocent, so I imagined him to be a good enough Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist or Methodist to believe in sharing the fishes and loaves. But it’s clear that he was thinking in wholesale rather than parochial terms when he offered his solution to the problem of standing too long in line at the post office: Nuke them all. He did not mean we should nuke the millionaires. His quick-fix silver bullet solution to our woes was to use nuclear bombs to “turn all those places into a parking lot.” “Those places” he was referring to were biblical lands or neighbors of biblical lands, somewhere.

I didn’t ask if his solution to our problems derived from what he had learned in the church of his choice, but I was still curious: Was he serious?

“Yes,” he said, “and I’m not alone. A lot of people think like me.”

“You mean, just push a button and we’ll be done with it?”


It’s particularly troubling that he wasn’t an oddball, because I like certain oddballs. One of them is Kevin, a distinguished chemical engineer who loves to talk about home-brewed beer while drinking it. Recently Kevin was passionate about a biography of Paracelsus he had just read. Paracelsus (or Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bambastus von Hohenheim) was a scientist who lived between 1493 and 1541. He was one of the Einsteins of his day, though his theories and achievements, which left his mark on the studies of medicine, chemistry, and botany, seem occult by contemporary standards. Notable is the rule that he, as “father of toxicology,” brought to the attention to my brew-swigging friend Kevin. “All things are poison,” Paracelsus said, “and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poison.”

The rule’s obvious applications come to mind––pesticides, fertilizers, cars, cell phones, X-rays, chemotherapy, beer––but Paracelsus believed that the rule applied to any alchemy resulting from mixing the human and natural. Toxins result, in short, whenever people meddle with earth, air, water, and fire to invent something new. Though historians are in the dark about whether Paracelsus owned a cat, or if the cat’s curiosity killed it off, it’s clear that Paracelsus, like Einstein, was a worry-wart. He knew well the warnings broadcast about the legendary medieval maverick Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil to get access to nature’s terrible mysteries. If he were alive today Peracelsus would say that Dr. Faustus, not Einstein, was the true father of the nuclear bomb.

I don’t suppose we can keep from poisoning ourselves, and the best we can do is live in the hope that the poisons we brew will work like flu shots. Most of them won’t. The problem is not that we’re not all Einsteins; it’s that a lot of us are passionately curious. And because we’re curious we make things out of earth, air, water, and fire, and then we try selling them. Though selling goods, services and patents is not always the same as selling a soul, making and selling things is what we do, whether it’s art, artificial flavorings, or nuclear bombs. We should expect that as our numbers increase and multiply, we naturally should expect to find it harder to escape the stews we brew. And as the stews we stir ourselves into become more unnatural, so will we.

I eat a carrot and apple a day by taking my vitamin pill, but if there were a vitamin button to push I’d rather push it than eat a pill. Like the gent in the post office I like to push buttons to get things done, and it’s clear that we’ve evolved beyond buttons made of bone. I push a button to unlock the door of my car, another button to open the window, still others to turn on the air conditioner and radio. From my cell phone I call my daughters in Iowa or Brussels. On my computer my mouse lets me surf and stream. If there were buttons for lowering deficits, for taking boredom out of schools, for preventing the extinction of tigers and lions, and for cleaning the kitty litter box, I’d push them all. It’s a hard-wired habit hard to break, and I am hooked.

My son, who knows how to push my buttons, tells me not to worry because we’re smarter now than geniuses were in the old days. He pushes buttons in his sleep. We have smart-pads, smart-phones, and smart-boards, he says, and we’ve got robots who work while we play computer games. Computers have shrunk centuries worth of human history into a memory chip, and they also know how to beat us at chess and bridge. Anything we want to know is a mouse-click away, and everyone in the world is interconnected and wired like never before. Who needs Einstein to solve math problems that won’t have to be on tests any more?

Already we have smart bombs operated by buttons pushed thousands of miles away from the people they kill. Stuart Wolf, who worked on an early version of the Internet, is looking not very far ahead. He sees the development of a headband that “feeds directly into the brain and lets us, among other things, talk without speaking, see around corners, and drive by thinking.” He also envisions soldiers wearing battlefield “thought helmets” that will enable them to “communicate wordlessly by translating brain waves.” (NYRB, June 23, 2011).

It blows my mind.

So why should we expect the gentleman in the post office line to lag behind the times? Humans, not animals and goat-herders in biblical lands, push buttons when there are problems to solve. Biology is slow and low. Tech is fast and high.

I push a pause button in my mind to zero out the thought of using a brain helmet to do my talking for me. There’s much to be said for nature taking its course in old-fashioned ways. The gentleman waiting in line at the post office, his words still ringing in my ears, also needed to get a piece of my mind. Does he think that any of our technologies will allow us to win wars without us experiencing the wars? In some probably unintended way will we not experience the technologies we deploy? The gap between future technologies and video games is narrowing, but will drones, movies and prayer get us through our current wars?

Nuclear bombs, I say to him, are weird devices whose friendly fire is capable of ending all arguments, but so far they have proven useful only when not used.

These inventions, extraordinary concoctions of earth, air, water and fire, are extraordinarily toxic. Is there a proper dose? What would Paracelsus say?

Political geniuses tell us we should focus more narrowly on the economy. We should make hay from the messes we’ve made. As I search my soul to find some way to contribute to growth a light goes on in my mind, a wonderful new opportunity for ambitious investors, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I see a lot of people walking the streets with wires coming in and out of their pockets, coats, collars and ears. It’s getting harder to distinguish humans from their instruments. Even Paracelsus would agree that all the wires necessary to being properly wired give us a slovenly look not unlike Einstein’s hair. I therefore visualize a vast market for push-button and mouse-pad vests, and new lines of outer and underwear capable of making fashion statements that address the realities of our times. The underwear line would privatize all unsightly hookups, and mouse-pad wear could be specially tailored to be cozy and warm for customers who live in frigid nations. Instead of being made from inert pieces of bone, the push-buttons on new vestments could be cut from a variety of soft pelts certain to provide a menu of soothing touch-response options. Specialty lines could be developed to appeal to a growing mass market of individualists feeling a deep need to be directly engaged by remote control to the facts of real life. Both the push-button and mouse-pad vestment lines could be programmed to satisfy privatized gratification impulses, and would come in many colors and styles.

My soul is a shabby thing so no one would think of buying it, but my ideas are for sale, starting now, to the highest bidder.

It’s the kind of investment that might appeal to the wan-faced gentleman who waited in line with me at the post office. His Green Bay Packer sweatshirt looked loose on him, but maybe it had to make room for an artificial heart.