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Tech Q&A

Robert Zimmerman

Describe your latest project.
My next several projects are all in their early stages, but I am planning to write on a host of topics, from cave exploration to the heroic era of the clipper ship to the next great exploration in space, all subjects that have always fascinated me.

  1. The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Zimmerman illuminates a triumph of human curiosity....Must reading for armchair astrophysicists." Booklist (starred review)
  2. Leaving Earth: Space Stations Rival Superpowers and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel "[A]n engaging narrative of human experiences with longer and longer space missions..." Nature

    "[I]t will undoubtedly be the leading book on the Russian space station program for the foreseeable future." Publishers Weekly


What inspires you to sit down and write?
I am an optimist. When I look at a half-filled glass of water, I not only see it as half-filled, I see the empty half as mysterious and fascinating in its own right. Because of this optimism, I love to learn new things and explore new places. I find the universe to be an endlessly wonderful place, available for every person to enjoy and experience as fully as possible. I can't get enough of it. At the same time, I also love to pass what I learn to others so we all can share it. Whether it is the amazing and heroic history of space exploration or the detailed and astonishing discovery of an astronomer using the Hubble Space Telescope, I feel compelled to tell the story of these efforts so they are recognized and celebrated by as many people as possible. Or as Gordon Dickson wrote in his science fiction classic The Way of the Pilgrim, "He felt the urge to speak like a great hand at his back, pushing him forward, a hand that could not be resisted."

Chess or video games?
Both. I love chess for the intellectual challenge. The complexity of the game makes my mind work in interesting ways. Unfortunately, I don't get to play as often as I would like, as not many people nowadays seem as interested in it.

Video games, however, are simply relaxing. During my work day, I will periodically stop my work (writing or reading) and play a game of Patience (the Linux version of Freecell), Mines (the Linux version of Minesweeper), Mahjong, or Gnometris to relax the brain so that I can approach my work with a fresh eye.

What do you do for relaxation?
These days I have two main hobbies: Cave exploration and target pistol shooting. In the first, I get to go where no human has ever gone before. In the second, I get to challenge my abilities while learning how to defend myself and my family.

Cave exploration: I have been doing this for more than 25 years, exploring and visiting caves in the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, and Ukraine. In recent years, my focus has been on two projects in the U.S., both in West Virginia. With the first project, I have been the cartographer for the remapping and exploration of an eight-mile cave system near the town of Cass, West Virginia. I expect to have the map ready for publication by the end of 2008. The second project is a major exploration effort near Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, that has produced more than 35 miles of virgin passage in the last seven years. Before we are finished, we hope to connect several large cave systems, creating what will be a 50- to 80-mile cave, the sixth largest in the United States.

Target Pistol shooting: This is a relatively new hobby. Two years ago, I decided that, for the protection of my family and my own sense of security, I needed to learn how to use firearms. I grew up in New York City, where guns are considered the root of all evil and you are brainwashed into thinking that a gun can hurt you if you just look at it funny. As the years have passed, I have realized that this is a ridiculous perspective; a gun is merely a tool which one should not be afraid to learn how to use, safely and effectively. After taking classes and visiting at a variety of local gun ranges, my wife and I joined a weekly competitive bullseye league and discovered that trying to hit the center of a target 75 feet away while firing a pistol with one hand is not only very challenging, it is also a lot of fun.

What's your favorite blog right now?
I don't have any particular favorite weblog. Instead, I routinely visit several dozen weblogs every day, with the sites changing over time.

For space news, I rely most on Jeff Foust's www.spacetoday.net. His coverage of all news pertaining to astronomy and the exploration of space is more complete than any other site.

For astronomy information, I regularly visit the Los Alamos archives and the Astrophysics Data System website. On these sites, I can download and read almost every scientific paper ever written or being written about astronomy and physics.

For general news, I normally avoid the mainstream media webpages, which I find are too often vacuous and not very informative. Better to go to as many other sources as possible to widen the range of perspectives I get on any issue. Of these, however, my favorites these days are:

Instapundit
The Long War Journal
The Mudville Gazette
HotAir
The Drudge Report
RealClearPolitics
Ace of Spaces

This list shifts and changes continually, however. If you were to ask me to give it to you in a week, it would be different.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Sadly, for me Scott Adams's Dilbert strip captures the absurdity and tragedy of our increasingly corporate world, where no one wants to take personal responsibility for their actions and too many people wield power for its own sake.

I was once giving a lecture about manned space exploration to a chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. At the end of my talk, a professor raised his hand and asked me, "What processes can we create to prevent the kind of errors that led to the Columbia shuttle failure?" He was wondering if NASA or the government could set up some form of review system or safety panel to check on people's work and therefore make sure that such things wouldn't happen in the future.

My answer was blunt. "None. The only process that will truly work is that everyone involved takes personal responsibility for their own actions. If you see something wrong, you have to speak up, even if it costs you your job. Better to know you tried to prevent a disaster than you looked the other way in order to protect your paycheck. Creating a 'process' will only insulate people from that responsibility, and in the end will only make things worse."

Unfortunately, this desire to hide behind a "process" and avoid personal responsibility is illustrated by Scott Adams every day. And the worst part is that Adams is only describing what is actually happening in the corporate world.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
I haven't the faintest idea what specific technology is going to lead to the betterment of people's lives. Discoveries come from all directions and always surprise us.

Instead, I believe that it is the effort to push the unknown on all fronts that matters, and makes our lives better regardless of what is discovered. Somewhere, someday, someone will be looking in a microscope or a telescope or turning a wrench or manipulating a computer program in a way that no one ever tried before, and will see something unexpected and new that will revolutionize our lives forever.

The danger only comes when we stop pushing the unknown, or become afraid of it. When that happens, our lives shrink, our abilities become diminished, and things deteriorate.

Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In 10 years?
At this moment in time, the United States clearly leads the world, not only in science and technology, but in almost every other field of creative endeavor.

To my mind, this situation exists because of the founding principles that established the U.S., a society built on the rule of law and structured so as to favor freedom rather than governance. Under this premise, Americans have had the liberty to pursue their dreams, wherever those dreams took them, while knowing that the legal and social framework in which they lived would support and defend their right to benefit from those dreams.

Whether this situation will continue, however, remains unknown. As a democracy, the United States becomes the nation that its citizenry chooses it to become. Unfortunately, in recent years, the American public has increasingly been less interested in using freedom to solve their problems and more interested in asking the government to be their problem-solver. Such an approach is more reminescent of the now-gone and not-missed Soviet Union than it is of the America of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Washington.

Despite these worrisome trends, it is unlikely that any other nation will catch up with the United States in the next ten years. The economic, cultural, and legal roots of America's strength are deep, and will extend their influence for many decades to come.

If I had to pick the one country whose potential is large enough and also seems to be traveling the right path towards passing the U.S., that country would be India. In recent years, India has worked hard to abandon its past socialist leanings and instead focus on competition, private enterprise, and profit as a means to success. The result has been a booming economy and increased wealth for all its citizens. In fact, things in India are going so well that they truly believe that, within the next 15 years, they will send their own astronauts to the Moon. I would not underestimate this possibility.

÷ ÷ ÷

Robert Zimmerman is an award-winning science writer and historian whose work has appeared in Natural History, The Wall Street Journal, and Astronomy, among other leading publications. His books include Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel and Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8.

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