How sci-fi can make us smart
Jan 18, 2022
Episode 581

How sci-fi can make us smart

And teach us about solving big problems in the real world.

On Make Me Smart, we often turn to economists, professors and policy wonks to make us smart about some big topics that need explaining. Today, we’re turning to a different kind of expert, sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson.

His latest book, “Termination Shock,” is about climate change, geoengineering and what happens when a billionaire decides to take matters into his own hands.

“I’m past trying to convince people that climate change is real. What I was more interested in was, for an audience that believes that climate change is real, what are some outcomes that we might see, in the near future, as different people in different countries begin to try to come to grips with that problem, because opinions differ as to what the right approach might be. And whenever you get differing opinions, you’ve got conflict, and whenever you’ve got conflict, you have the potential for a good story,” Stephenson said.

We’ll talk with Stephenson about how he thinks about big, complex issues like climate change and what this genre can teach us about the future and solving problems in the real world. Speaking of the future, Stephenson, who coined the word “metaverse” in 1992, weighs in on all the hullaballoo over the metaverse today.

In the News Fix, what’s behind all the news, or lack thereof, that we’re not getting from Tonga after this weekend’s volcano eruption? Also, you can get your free rapid COVID-19 test now.

Then, a listener drops some facts on the James Webb Space Telescope and what a former Google researcher was really wrong about.

Here’s everything we talked about today:

Make Me Smart January 18, 2022 transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Kai Ryssdal: Here we go. Here we go.

Kimberly Adams: I’m Kimberly Adams. Welcome to Make Me Smart, where none of us is as smart as all of us.

Kai Ryssdal: Sorry, I had to turn the volume down. Somebody was in my studio on my day off. Kills me every time they do that. Hey, everybody. I’m calling Kai Ryssdal. Thanks for being with us again. It is Tuesday, time for a weekly meander into a single topic. We’re not saying deep dive anymore, right? Didn’t we say that that word was like outlawed or something? Anyway.

Kimberly Adams: Someone said that.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, I don’t know. Anyway, little something different today. We talk about big problems on on this podcast. We talk about problems in the economy, problems in tech, problems in the society, everything from from the pandemic to climate change. And we turned to experts, academics, policy people as well, to talk about solutions. Today something a little bit different, as I said.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah, I mean, a different kind of expert. We wanted to find out what sci-fi as a genre. One of my favorites, by the way, could teach us about problem solving in the real world. Specifically, in this case, climate change. Our guest is sci0fi writer, Neil Stephenson. His latest book is “Termination Shock.” Welcome to the program.

Neil Stephenson: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Kimberly Adams: Neil, I have to say, reading your book, this weekend was so disorienting because part of it centers on geoengineering, which I’m going to ask you to explain a little bit, but it has to do with volcanic eruptions, which also happened this week. I was so disoriented. So can you walk through what geoengineering is, and why volcanic eruption mattered in the context of your book?

Neil Stephenson: Sure, I mean, geoengineering is a very general term, that could mean any kind of human intervention in the climate, the specific form of it that I’m talking about in the book is called solar geoengineering, and it basically means putting stuff into the stratosphere, the highest level of the atmosphere, that would bounce back some of the sun’s radiation, and thereby kind of mitigate some of the effects of global warming. And we know that this is theoretically possible, because nature has performed the experiment for us many times in human history, most recently, last weekend. And that takes the form of big volcanic eruptions that occasionally hurl huge amounts of sulfur dioxide, up into the stratosphere. And it’s been observed many times over human history that during the year or two following one of those eruptions, there will be an overall cooling of temperatures all around the world, which, you know, can be a big effect or a little one, depending on the size of the eruption.

Kai Ryssdal: When you sat down to write “Termination Shock,” how much of our present climate conundrum, were you trying to convince people of, you know, I mean, where you’re trying to change minds, or where you’re writing a good story?

Neil Stephenson: Well, writing a good story is kind of the first thing that you have to do when you’re in my line of work. But I didn’t think that was going to be hard in this case, because it is such a dramatic kind of global topic. You know, it’s not a difficult thing to turn into a good yarn. I’m past trying to convince people that climate change is real. I mean, if you don’t believe that, by this point, I’m not here to try to change your mind about that. What I was more interested in was, you know, for an audience that believes that climate change is real, what are some outcomes that we might see, in the near future as different people in different countries begin to try to come to grips with that problem. Because, you know, opinions differ as to what the right approach might be. And whenever you get differing opinions, you’ve got conflict. And whenever you have conflict, you have the potential for a good story.

Kimberly Adams: In “Termination Shock,” not to give too much away, but there’s a billionaire who tries to sort of use the example that you laid out with what happens with volcanoes, but take matters into his own hands, and does something pretty drastic to try to cool the planet. Do you think that the solution to some of these big problems that we’re facing like climate change that it’s just going to take these billionaires, you know, going on their own, to save us?

Neil Stephenson: I think we are in a funny state in our culture right now, where we have gotten in the habit – and I don’t think it’s a great habit – but anyway, it’s a habit of looking to billionaires as the problem solvers in our society. And so, a lot of times, if there’s something that we think needs doing, you know, in a way of space exploration, or it can be a lot of different things. We sort of look to billionaires to just intervene and solve the problem, where, you know, 50 years ago, we might have expected the same problem to be addressed by a government initiative, or an international body, or some other more traditional approach. So the book is just kind of reflecting that state of mind that we found ourselves in. And kind of asking, you know, what, if one of those billionaires just decided that he knew what he thought was best and and tried to put his resources to work implementing a specific solution.

Kai Ryssdal: And that’s not an illogical next step, right, because government has proven itself paralyzed, certainly here in the United States, and in other places, as well, especially on the big, big expensive issues, you know.

Neil Stephenson: It often seems that way. You know, a lot governments, particularly in the United States are, seem to be kind of hopelessly deadlocked. I’m not happy about it. But again, that’s how we get into these situations where, you know, where we start looking to  billionaires.

Kimberly Adams: With this idea that sci-fi often does give us kind of a glimpse into the future. What role do you think that geoengineering not just as you’ve laid it out in this book, but just in general, will play in our future?

Neil Stephenson: Well, what we really need is to remove unbelievably huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And it’s a problem that’s built up over the last couple 100 years. And even if we stopped emitting new CO2 Today, that problem would persist for hundreds of thousands of years, because nature doesn’t have any effective, fast way to pull that carbon out. So the only real solution is carbon capture on an incredibly huge scale. And, you know, in the long run, I’m optimistic that we’ll find a way to do that. There’s lots of people thinking about it, lots of people working on it, but we’re in for a kind of rough few decades, basically, the remainder of the 21st century, during which, you know, our efforts at carbon capture simply are going to take a while to get going. And in the meantime, the CO2 level is climbing still very rapidly, and we’re already beginning to see disastrous consequences for people in different parts of the world. So I think it’s inevitable that as people understand these realities, geoengineering is going to become something that gets talked about and argued about, and possibly even implemented.

Kai Ryssdal: Let me just pick up on something there and this is going to be a little sideways, but do you have to be an optimist to write good sellable science fiction? It seems to me that you kind of do.

Neil Stephenson: I think it varies a little bit depending on the medium you’re working in. I think that in general, written fiction has got a lot more interesting ideas and positive notions about the future than what we tend to see in media, in movies and especially in video games. You know, the default future is always a grim dystopia. And so it could be that if you’re trying to write a screenplay, that’s your ticket. But I think that there’s a lot more room for diverse points of view and different visions of the future in the field of science fiction stories and novels.

Kimberly Adams: You mentioned a minute ago that, you know, you think people are going to be talking about geoengineering more and more in the future. And I guess we definitely have to believe you because you’re the person who coined the term “metaverse” in your book “Snow Crash” back in 1992. And we are certainly all talking about it now. What do you make of that this this chatter happening? You know, the all this time later about the metaverse?

Neil Stephenson: Well, let me give you a kind of, you know, my take on it. We have been looking at two dimensional screens on our laptops and tablets and phones for for a long time now. And those have gotten about as good as they’re going to get, I mean, you can go to the store now and buy a 4k or an 8k TV. It just isn’t, it can’t possibly get a lot, a lot nicer than it is already. And so if you’re in that business, you need to be thinking a few years down the road as to what the next, what’s the next generation of goods and services, you know, electronic devices and an entertainment, that you might be thinking about selling to your customers. And it’s not going to be 16k or 32k television sets, it’s got to be something new. So I think the metaverse has kind of become an umbrella term for whatever people in that business hope you the consumer will be buying five years from now. And in general, it means a new generation of output device, it’s not a flat screen, it’s some kind of three dimensional device, whether it be a VR, virtual reality, or AR augmented reality headset, and new kinds of input devices, things that track your hands and your eyes and so on. And new kinds of experiences that are massively multiplayer as the saying goes and interactive and three dimensional. So that’s kind of why the term has has a lot of buzz right now. But within that you sort of have to … put on a strong filter and, and and view it all with an appropriate level of skepticism.

Kimberly Adams: Seeing how it’s been picked up, how do you feel about the word now? Cause I mean, I imagine when you were writing that book, you know, coming up with this terminology, do you kind of wish, “dang, I wish I called it something else?”

Neil Stephenson: Well, obviously, anytime, a word you invented gets picked up and inspires people to do things. It’s great. Okay. I mean, it’s very pleasing when that happens now, that doesn’t mean absolutely every idea with the term “metaverse” slapped onto it is a great idea. But, you know, if I had made an effort to control it more, you know, trademarked or copyrighted or something, then people just would have picked some other word to use. Right and so I just tried to sit back and kind of watch it with some detachment, some amusement.

Kai Ryssdal: So look, people read your stuff, to, in some degree get away, right to not have to deal with the problems of the day. And the metaverse and all of that will, I suppose, eventually become a place where we all have to live and work even though now it’s kind of a novelty and fun. I wonder, though, when you need to unplug and do something that’s not right in front of you. What do you do? You, Neil Stephenson, what do you do?

Neil Stephenson: You know, it’s a mix of things I do. I have been spending some some time on video games just during the holiday season and lockedown and all of that. But I like to make things you know, I like to work in the machine shop, and design things and make things But even that is being slowly taken over by metaverse-like experiences. I mean, if you’re designing something now that you want to 3D print, or that you want to machine on a modern machine tool, you don’t do that on a piece of paper anymore. You do it on the screen of a computer using a 3D. you know, CAD program. That’s one form of metaverse=like experience. So, you know, it does become kind of hard to get away from at a certain point.

Kai Ryssdal: Neil Stephenson, you probably read at least one of his many books, the most recent one is called “Termination Shock” about climate change and the world we’re living in now. Mr. Stephenson, thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.

Neil Stephenson: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me on your show.

Kai Ryssdal: Kind of love that the science fiction guy likes to go make things. That’s what I’m saying.

Kimberly Adams: Yeah. Gotta have something real when you’re making stuff up.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah. Yeah.

Kimberly Adams: The geoengineering thing is really interesting, because and this comes up a bit in his book is, there’s always going to be winners and losers. If you try to do a planet-wide, or even local solution to fix the climate, you fix it in one place, it causes a natural disaster someplace else. And so who gets to be in the room when those decisions are made about solutions to fix the climate really, really matters and whose voices get heard. And I’ve been kind of stewing on that, like, as we’re coming up with these solutions, not just who’s going to, you know, own the technology and profit from the technology, and, you know, make these decisions to hopefully, you know, save the world in the long run, but who’s going to bear the brunt of the consequences of those solutions as well.

Kai Ryssdal: Right. And who gets to make the decisions to set determines who bears the brunt? Right. I mean, that’s just, that’s how it’s gonna happen. And we need to accept that and then change who gets to make the decisions? You know? Yeah. Anyway.

Kimberly Adams: All right. We want to hear from you. Are you like me, a sci-fi nerd? If so you can share your favorite sci-fi idea for the future. Like what of the technology that you’ve read about in books do you really want to see in real life since we now have our Tricorders, sort of.

Kai Ryssdal: Nice Star Trek reference right there, very good.

Kimberly Adams: Thank you. Thank you gotta slip it in when I can.

Kai Ryssdal: At least one of Kimberly’s social media avatars is Lieutenant Uhura, or her as Lieutenant Uhura I’m just saying.

Kimberly Adams:  I was very proud of that outfit.  Our number is 508-827-6278, also known as 508-82-SMART  or you can leave us a voice memo at And we will be right back. Okay, it’s time for the news fix. And if you don’t mind Kai, I’m going to go first because mine circles back to the volcanic eruption that we were talking about at the top of the show, and the images of Tonga are just starting to sort of come through of all of these communities covered in ash, the volcano itself is now like, gone like it blew itself up so hard that it seems to be the remains are underwater except for a couple of pieces of it. But we don’t know all that much at this point about what’s happened to the people like we’ve heard about a couple of deaths, but not a lot of detail about how widespread the damage is, not only the explosion and the ashfall and the tsunami, because Tonga is pretty much cut off from communication because of a break in an underwater cable that basically provides much of the communication to the island, or the islands, I should say, plural. And there was a really interesting Reuters piece about this. And one detail that jumped out at me was that more than 99% of global international data traffic is still carried on a network of about 280 submarine cables stretching more than 600,000 miles. And that’s not a lot of cables for that much communication, and obviously, these things are not easy to fix. And so we have pretty much lost communication, except for a couple of satellite phones that seemed to be working, with all of these people who, you know, could be in real need at the moment because of this communication breakdown. And so you have countries like New Zealand and Australia, trying to prepare to send aid there, but they don’t even know what’s needed, in large part because they can’t talk to anybody. And that just really, you know, heart goes out to the folks there.

Kai Ryssdal: Yeah, yeah. And I’m just seeing the BBC says it could be down for two weeks, which is just a long, long time when you are in as extreme situation, as those folks may or may not be. I mean, you know, we’re just getting word now. Yeah. Okay, I’ve got three but they’re quick, I promise, I’m going to bring through ’em. Saw this in the Los Angeles Times this morning. California now has 7 million Coronavirus cases, right since the beginning of this pandemic, which is a lot, but there’s a lot of people here. The thing that got me about this was that we got a million cases in one week. A million in a week. Wear your masks, get your shot. Number two, speaking of tests –

Kimberly Adams: Although, at this point, like yes, that for sure. But I feel like there’s so many people and I spoke to somebody today who’s you know, sick home with her family, you know, with COVID. And people tried so hard to stay safe. And I feel so badly for people who did everything they were supposed to do. And yet. So yes, vaccinate, get yourself boosted. Wear your mask, but also don’t beat yourself up if you get it.

Kai Ryssdal: Exactly. That’s a really good point. That’s a really good point. Related but different. It’s not supposed to start till tomorrow, but I tried it on a lark today and it works And get yourself four free COVID tests. So check that one out. They will deliver starting, like in seven to 12 days. So there’s that. And then and then just serious nuts and bolts here. Lots of hullabaloo the last couple of days about volatility in the markets and oh my god, the stock market is deflating and interest rates are going up. And the 10 year today the US benchmark is at 1.84% I saw this morning before I came into the studio. This is what’s supposed to happen people. This is what’s supposed to happen. Everybody calm the heck down. That’s it. I just want to say that.

Kimberly Adams: You are very excitable just there for telling people to calm down.

Kai Ryssdal: Everybody’s like “Oh my God!” Like no, this is what’s supposed to happen. This is what’s supposed to happen. Money’s gonna get more expensive. It’s going to come out of the stock market. It’s not going to be catastrophic. Just everybody relax. It’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s it. That’s what I got. That’s where I am. Charlton next piece of – thanks you.

Kimberly Adams:  Okay, last week, we talked about the James Webb Space Telescope and Kai and I have been talking about it on Slack ever since. And we got this voice message.

Matt: Hi Kai and Kimber-geek, this is Matt from Berkeley, California with trivia for space nerds. Both the corrective lens for the Hubble and the mirrors for the James Webb were made in Richmond, California right near a really decrepit mall, polished to within the radius of a hydrogen atom, which is … How do you polish something less than atom? You average it over a millimeter and you just knock off a few atoms and the average drops and you get your number. Hope you have a good show, bye!

Kai Ryssdal: “You just knock off a few atoms.” Sorry, sorry. I mean, look, I’m a history poli-sci guy. I’m a space geek. But I have zero background in the sciences. Seems to me that you just knock off a few atoms seems remarkably, oh, imprecise. But anyway, for those who are as I am obsessed with where this freakin thing is and what it’s doing. Webb, will tell you all you need to know about this thing. And right now they’re in the final sort of alignment phase of those individual mirrors. And it’s super, super cool. And in – sorry, time –in like five days, it’s going to be at the L2 insertion point, which is just so cool.

Kimberly Adams: 

Yeah, it’s so funny. Like, at this point, all I have to do is type into my browser “where” and the Where’s Webb website pops up.

Kai Ryssdal: 

Totally, totally, it’s super cool. All right, what’s next?

Anne: Hi, this is Anne calling from Seattle. On the topic of “Baby Shark” being played 10 billion times. I want to be abundantly clear that you only reach 10 billion plays of a song when your child makes you listen to it 100 times a day for seven weeks. I honestly don’t think  that stat is that remarkable when you think about who the audience of Baby Shark is. I hope you guys are having a great day.

Kai Ryssdal: She sounds beleaguered. Anne sounds beleaguered. Baby shark doo doo doo.

Kimberly Adams:  Doo, doo doo. Yeah, that’s like when there was, I guess it was like Netflix was putting out all these ads about random stats about what people were watching. And they’ve mentioned someone who watched the B movie like, hundreds and hundreds of times. And this one woman was like, “Oh, God, that was me.” Because her kid wanted her watching it over and over again. Find that story. Okay. But before we go, we are going to leave you with today’s answer to the make me smart question, which is, “What is something you thought you knew that you later found out you were wrong about?” This week’s answer comes from Timnit Gebru. She’s a former Google researcher, and now is the founder and executive director of the new Distributed AI Research Institute. And I talked to her for the tech show. And I thought her answer to this question was really interesting.

Timnit Gebru:  Oh, you know what? I have to tell you drones during Obama’s second term, I was one of the people defending his use of drones. And I can’t even believe that, because I am so against them right now. And so for me, you know, the impact of drones and warfare, and especially what it means when we are so removed from the consequences of our actions, and who gets to be using those kinds of weapons, autonomous weapons and who is on the receiving end of these weapons. I was extremely wrong about them. You know, as we live as human beings, we have new information and we grow and we evolve and that should be allowed.

Kai Ryssdal: Hmm, that’s a good answer. That’s a good, good answer.

Kimberly Adams: And talk about something from sort of sci-fi dystopia becoming real life. But I also really loved what she said about we need to be allowed to learn and grow. And the fact that she was even willing to say that she was all for it and changed her mind. I think that’s really powerful.

Kai Ryssdal: Totally agree. Because that doesn’t that space doesn’t exist. In a lot of the discourse that we have in this society today. It just doesn’t.

Kimberly Adams: For sure. Don’t forget to send us your answers to the make me smart question. You can call us and leave us a voice message at 508-82-SMART we really appreciate it. Or, you know, emails or voice memo. Like I said before, we really appreciate it. Make Me Smart is going to be back tomorrow.

Kai Ryssdal: Yes.

Kimberly Adams: Yes.

Kai Ryssdal: Yep. Hang on. Here we go. Make Me Smart s directed and produced by Marissa Cabrera. Our team also includes producer Marque Green, Tony Wagner writing newsletters, and our intern Tiffany Bui.

Kimberly Adams: Today’s program was engineered by Charlton Thorp with mixing by Emma Erdbrink. Ben Tolliday and Daniel Ramirez composed our theme music. The senior producers Bridget Bodnar. Donna Tam is the director of On Demand. And Marketplace’s Vice President and General Manager is Neal Scarbrough.

Kai Ryssdal: There we go. Another one in the can. Somehow.

Kimberly Adams: Somehow, someway, every day.

Kai Ryssdal: There we go.

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