Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand vs. Carl Sagan

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter II

The decay of Colorado is accelerating. Men that Dagny knows personally, men who love their jobs and swear that they’ll never leave, that they’ll resist whatever blandishment or temptation is claiming their fellows, or at the very least that they won’t disappear without an explanation, are vanishing one after another without a word. Since I’m nothing if not scrupulously fair to Ayn Rand, I’ll cite this passage as a well-executed example of building suspense:

One by one, the men who had built new towns in Colorado, had departed into some silent unknown, from which no voice or person had yet returned. The towns they had left were dying. Some of the factories they built had remained ownerless and locked; others had been seized by the local authorities; the machines in both stood still.

…It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch – someone, she thought bitterly, who had reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static.

While the economy teeters on the brink, Dagny has staked everything on her quest to reconstruct the magic motor, now with the help of Quentin Daniels, the young scientist Robert Stadler recommended to her as someone who might be able to accomplish the deed.

She had liked Quentin Daniels from the moment he entered her office on their first interview. He was a lanky man in his early thirties, with a homely, angular face and an attractive smile. A hint of the smile remained in his features at all times, particularly when he listened; it was a look of good-natured amusement, as if he were swiftly and patiently discarding the irrelevant in the words he heard and going straight to the point a moment ahead of the speaker.

“Why did you refuse to work for Dr. Stadler?” she asked.

The hint of his smile grew harder and more stressed; this was as near as he came to showing an emotion; the emotion was anger. But he answered in his even, unhurried drawl, “You know, Dr. Stadler once said that the first word of ‘Free, scientific inquiry’ was redundant. He seems to have forgotten it. Well, I’ll just say that ‘Governmental scientific inquiry’ is a contradiction in terms.”

Notice: it’s not just that government-funded scientific inquiry is slower, or more bureaucratic, or less efficient than the private sector. Rand calls it a contradiction in terms, like a square circle or a married bachelor. This fits with her earlier expressed view that everyone who works for the government is a stooge or an incompetent, though not with the inconvenient fact that it was government-sponsored research that gave us radar, space flight, GPS, nuclear energy, computers, and the Internet.

If you think I’m putting too much weight on three words, then I say that we see this attitude bleeding into the real world. Witness Michele Bachmann ludicrously claiming the free market could cure Alzheimer’s disease in ten years flat, if only the government would stop providing all that research funding. It’s not clear to me what argument she thought she was making: was it that there’s a cure waiting in the wings that’s being held back by evil Rand-villain bureaucrats? But then why wouldn’t it be ready immediately, if the government backed off? Or is it that government money somehow makes scientists stupid? Even if that were true, it says nothing about the intrinsic difficulty of the problem, so where did that timetable come from?

Daniels explains that he’s officially working as a night watchman at the Utah Institute of Technology, which was shuttered for lack of funds. He’s the only person left on the abandoned campus, doing his own experiments in the laboratory, just for pleasure:

“What do you intend to do, if you discover something of scientific importance or commercial value? Do you intend to put it to some public use?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Haven’t you any desire to be of service to humanity?”

“I don’t talk that kind of language, Miss Taggart. I don’t think you do, either.”

She laughed. “I think we’ll get along together, you and I.”

It sure is a good thing that Daniels isn’t quite as much of an Objectivist superman as Francisco d’Anconia, or else he might have punched her just for saying that.

You may notice that Daniels, toiling by himself in an abandoned lab, is another example of how Rand believes scientific progress happens. Her ideology requires that all great discoveries be the handiwork of individuals. Hank Rearden invented Rearden Metal apparently by himself – as we find out later, he’s the sole holder of the patent – not to mention his revolutionary bridge design, which came to him ex nihilo, in a single flash of genius. John Galt likewise created the perpetual-motion motor with no help or advice from anyone, not building on any prior research. Rand recoils from the idea of science as a collaborative, incremental process, even though that’s the way it usually happens, not through a string of isolated geniuses.

Now, let’s revisit that claim that government-funded science is a contradiction in terms. I can’t think of a better counterexample than NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. Here’s Carl Sagan, in his book Pale Blue Dot, explaining what the Voyagers accomplished:

Before their launch, in August and September 1977, we were almost wholly ignorant about most of the planetary part of the Solar System. In the next dozen years, they provided our first detailed, close-up information on many new worlds – some of them previously known only as fuzzy disks in the eyepieces of ground-based telescopes, some merely as points of light, and some whose very existence was unsuspected.

It’s thanks to the Voyagers that we discovered the rings of Jupiter and the volcanoes of Io, proved that the Great Red Spot was an anticyclonic storm, saw hints of an ocean beneath the ice of Europa and the dense hydrocarbon atmosphere of Titan, got our first close-up glimpses of Uranus and Neptune, and spotted geysers on Neptune’s moon Triton. Though they were only designed to survive as far out as Saturn, the Voyagers are both still functioning, and Voyager 1 has crossed the heliopause and is returning data from interstellar space.

To the list that begins with the Voyagers, we could add many more: the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity; the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan; the Hubble Space Telescope; the Kepler planet-finder; the WMAP satellite; the Large Hadron Collider that proved the existence of the Higgs boson; the BICEP2 experiment that may have found primordial gravitational waves; and more. All of these have increased our knowledge of the cosmos immeasurably, bringing back evidence of wonders we could scarcely have imagined, and none of them could have been created by one man working by himself in an abandoned lab. Then again, since their purpose was “service to humanity” rather than to bring back something that could be packaged and sold, perhaps Rand’s characters would disparage them as mere “abstract science”.

Image credit: NASA

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