Thursday, March 26, 2009

Research in the U.S. and Canada

To me it's a strange contrast between Canada and the U.S. Despite all the Republicans in the U.S. saying government can't do anything right, the federal government there spends an unbelievable fortune on research of almost all kinds. Despite the talk in Canada that certain government programs define us as decent people, etc., our federal government spends peanuts on research.

Maybe the contrast is: Canadians believe government should look after the people right in front of our eyes, while Americans believe government should cure cancer and build a colony on Mars. Freeman Dyson, a physicist who's a sceptic on global warming and therefore kind of a hero of mine, grew up in England, hoping to emigrate to the U.S., which he eventually did.

Yet even while probing and sifting, Dyson is always whimsically gazing into the beyond. As a boy he sketched plans for English rocket ships that could explore the stars, and then, in midlife, he helped design an American spacecraft to be powered by exploding atomic bombs — a secret Air Force project known as Orion. Dyson remains an armchair astronaut who speculates with glee about the coming of cheap space travel, when families can leave an overcrowded earth to homestead on asteroids and comets, swooping around the universe via solar sail craft. Dyson is convinced that our current “age of computers” will soon give way to “the age of domesticated biotechnology.” Bio-tech, he writes in his book, “Infinite in All Directions” (1988), “offers us the chance to imitate nature’s speed and flexibility,” and he imagines the furniture and art that people will “grow” for themselves, the pet dinosaurs they will “grow” for their children, along with an idiosyncratic menagerie of genetically engineered cousins of the carbon-eating tree: termites to consume derelict automobiles, a potato capable of flourishing on the dry red surfaces of Mars, a collision-avoiding car.

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