In this new essay collection, astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson lays out a series of arguments for NASA’s continued relevance. The space program drives technology, he says. It cultivates a sense of national pride. And it might give talented foreign scientists and researchers a reason to come to the United States and stay put rather than head back to China or India, both increasingly interested in space exploration.
Possessing both a keen scientific curiosity as well as an appreciation of pop culture, deGrasse shows he can titillate the public’s imagination when it comes to the stars. In other words, he spends a lot of time writing about aliens. Do they exist? Will they come in peace? In his essay “Extraterrestrial Life,” he offers an unexpected nomination for the dumbest fictional extra-solar being: V’ger, from 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which was really the U.S.-built space probe Voyager, spruced up with alien technology. “What irks me is that V’ger acquired total knowledge of the cosmos, yet remained clueless that its real name was Voyager,” he explains.
Computer technology is prevalent enough that brilliant coders can come from anywhere, even a third-world slum. But denied other recourse, they may wind up expending their genius as digital pick-pockets. In a recent article posted on Tech Crunch, writer Sarah Lacy traces an inbox-clogging e-mail scam letter back to its source in an Internet café in Lagos, Nigeria, where teenage boys spend hours upon hours diligently working to part people from the cash in their PayPal accounts. She compares them to the bright young coders that crowd Silicon Valley — smart, innovative and adept with a computer. Only, they’re driven to crime by lack of opportunity.
Lacy interviews several alleged scammers, one who claims to have spent the better part of his youth hacking bank systems, and others who ply more traditional scams, such as posing as virtual girlfriends for lonely Western men. “We use our brains to get what we want. For us it’s the only way to live and survive,” one of them tells Lacy. “As long as technology keeps advancing, there is no way to stop us.”