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#AskTIME Subscriber Q and A: Jeffrey Kluger

Sep 05, 2014

Welcome to TIME subscriber Q&A, with TIME senior editor Jeffrey Kluger, who is the author of the new book, The Narcissist Next Door:Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed—in Your World.

We will start posting questions and responses at 1 p.m. EST. We have been gathering reader questions for a couple days, but will also take questions in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #askTIME.

If you are not a subscriber yet, it is not too late to sign up.

Deconstructiva asks, Given the current increasing privatization of our space program—especially the Space X development of our—how do you see the future play out for us? Rather than totally privatized space or a return to the NASA monopoly, I'm splitting the difference and imagining public programs for research and long-distance unmanned flights while private companies handle some logistics (like Space X), mining, tourism, and select material goods that sell easily. Returning to movie themes, I just hope our future space mining companies do NOT encounter an egg-laying alien (with acid for blood) that's brought back to Earth for bioweapons research. We can't always rely on Sigourney Weaver to save us from ourselves.

Well, regarding that egg-laying alien with acid for blood, sorry but it’s already here but no one’s been told yet. (Oops. I think I wasn’t supposed to say that.) As to the other questions you raise: I agree that we’re going to see a division of responsibilities. I’ve come to believe that NASA’s Orion spacecraft and heavy lift booster are the real deal and will fly, which will once again give the agency the capacity for deep space travel. I also think that Elon Musk, Sierra Nevada, Boeing and the like will wind up handling unmanned cargo runs and taxi services to low-earth orbit. As for vacations in space—the Richard Branson type thing—I’m less sanguine. Space is harder and more dangerous than people think and, believe it or not, a lot less fun, unless you’re exquisitely well-trained, which tourists aren’t.

Hivemaster asks, Are there questions that can never be answered?

The delicious thing about this question is that in some ways, it can never be answered. The scope of potential knowledge is, presumably, unlimited and the scope of things we know is exceedingly limited. I often think that nothing is unanswerable, provided you allow an infinite amount of time for human beings to continue evolving. Not to overstate the humbling here, but if you try to explain relativity to a cat you’ll never get anywhere. The cat brain is not remotely equipped to understand what it’s being told. Ditto the human brain for some questions we may not be smart enough to ask, never mind answer. But give us enough time, and who knows.

Deconstructiva asks, Thanks for your 7/28 post about the movie Lucy. Staying on movie themes and real science, I'm more impressed by the movie Her than Lucy, and it's fascinating to ponder where artificial intelligence may go. Siri and Cleverbot point to conversational intelligence, so we can imagine a future Samantha OS (or Scarlett, as in Johansson). Of course, we can imagine the darker opposite future as in the Terminators where the machines literally take over. So if our future is Her vs. Terminator, which way do you think we'll most likely go if current trends stay the same? I vote for Her, not so much as for optimism alone, but that most of our science has been for good - agriculture, medicine, etc., though the risks of misuse are always there.

HER vs. Terminator? I vote for Her too, mostly because we’re in greater control of our computer technology than dystopian movies would have us think. Computers, despite what the screenwriters would have us believe, would require an awful lot of complex coding to develop malevolence. In humans, that’s genetically drive, a survival imperative to eat, mate and kill when necessary as long as it gets your genes across. But computers? No genes, so no Machiavellianism. As to computer consciousness, well, see “Are there any questions that can never be answered?” above.

DonQuixotic asks, Jeffrey, how damaging do you think it is for America's future to continue to allow our education system to slide it disrepair, and actively work against it by allowing creationism to be taught in some schools?

Believe it or not, I don’t mind hearing about creationism, as long as it’s included as a part of a larger curriculum on scripture and is taught as parable. But as science it’s a problem. What worries me is that Creationism seems to be part of a hydra-headed approach that includes all manner of scientific denialism—global warming, vaccines and a general mistrust of people in lab coats. It’s overstated but no less true that Sputnik served as a slap in the face that woke the US up to STEM courses before we even had the acronym. That awakening won the space age. Today, we’ve hit the snooze alarm.

DonQuixotic asks, Jeffrey, with the success of the Curiosity Rover, do you think we've hit a point in space exploration where controlled robots are the norm and manned extraterrestrial missions are scrapped indefinitely (at least until a more feasible form of space travel is perfected)? Does the will exist to take us to Mars within the next decade, or are our greatest manned space missions behind us for the foreseeable future?

I love space robots. Since the days of Ranger in the early 60s they’ve done breathtaking things throughout the solar system (and outside of it, now that we have Voyager 1 in interstellar space). But robots are limited. First of all, they’re slow. It takes a day or more of programming and transmitting to get a rover to drive even 10 yards. More to the point, wheel tracks in the dirt will never be the same as boots in the dirt. Do I think the will exists to go to Mars? Definitely—but it may take the private sector (Musk again) to do it.

Deconstructiva asks, Do you think we'll eventually have a cure for HIV? Despite many setbacks like the Mississippi baby's unfortunate failure with an aggressive treatment, I do. Why? Apparently the Berlin Patient is still doing well. No doubt we can't use dangerous bone marrow transplants as an across-the-board treatment, the fact that there's an existing, if rare, mutation out there that stops the disease from spreading offers hope at replicating this or to find other means. Perhaps this may lead to new approaches to curing viral diseases. As horrible as the current Ebola mess is, I think in the long run if scientists and drug companies keep at it, Ebola will be cured too, though HIV has been brutally tough to attack. But all is not lost, yes?

I do think eventually that there will be a way to deconstruct the virus so that we can eliminate it entirely from the system. But this is increasingly becoming a goal that may be unnecessary as we move closer and closer to treating AIDS as a manageable disease that may be chronic but can always be under control. The key is to do that affordably. Hey, I’ve got hypertension and there’s no cure or that. But I’ve been taking meds for more than a decade and I’m a solid 120/80. I don’t mean to be flip and analogize the two conditions—except by way of saying that symptom management is a terrific strategy when a disease has no cure.

Yogi asks, What do you think is the best way to combat the anti-vaxer movement? Will it sadly take an outbreak of a long forgotten disease and deaths of innocent children to get these parents to vaccinate their children?

I fear that information won’t move the anti-vaxxers. Indeed Time.com ran a story about a study showing that the more hard facts anti-vaxxers are given, the more they cling to misinformation. I do believe that more outbreaks of diseases like measles in NY and Mumps in Columbus will wake some people up. I also think the pressure of other parents, who won’t let their children play with unvaccinated kids will help. And I think simple laziness will have a salutary effect. Parents who insist on vaccinating their kids on their own schedule—say, one vaccine a month—have to make a lot more trips to the doctor than people who vaccinate on schedule. Many pediatricians report that the slow-vaxxers often just give up and comply with guidelines.

Deconstructiva asks, Given your co-authorship of Lost Moon, you can easily compare NASA of the Apollo days to NASA of today. With budget cuts and privitzation - Space X and others building the next shuttle instead of NASA doing so - and no clear major missions like Mars or a permanent Moon base, I think NASA seems lost compared to their past. Or is this not really so? But if so, why is this? I doubt budget cuts and a clueless, lazy Congress are not the sole reasons. Are people outside NASA - and inside too? - losing interest? Anti-science views are clearly popular among the Right, so has this disease affected our politics and space programs too? Should we have at least one clear mission to push NASA back into action, like Mars? Using a movie analogy, if the scenarios in Independence Day or Bruce Willis' Armageddon came true, we'd have one helluva motive to go back into space, and fast. I'd prefer we have more positive goals. Thoughts?

I’m rooting for China for two reasons: First, while I’d like to see the first flag on Mars or the next one on the moon be the stars and stripes, if it’s not going to be us I’m happy that anyone’s going. Plus, we’re a nation that doesn’t take well to dares, and if China really looks like they’re going to be eating our lunch in space, we may start to get energized. We saw that already this year when Russia threatened to stop flying us to our own space station. Suddenly, Congress woke up.

Paul Dirks asks, You recently wrote an article about invasive species. Here in the Virgin Islands there is an ongoing effort to kill Lionfish at every opportunity but opinions vary on the effectiveness of the tactic. What's your own view on how this particular species invasion is going to play out in the long term?

We may well succeed in containing the lion fish, but this particular invasive species is not going down without a real fight. A single lion fish can consume 20 tropical fish in half an hour, and according to at least one survey, some ares that have been invaded by lion fish have been stripped of almost 80% of their native populations. The average adult female lays up to 2 million eggs per year, so once the lion fish gets established in a territory, it's not going anywhere. The best humans can deal with the lion fish? Eat them. Really. Florida officials are trying to launch a public information campaign to promote the fish to restaurants and seafood counters, according to the Clearwater (Fla.) Gazette. Until then the best hope is trapping and at least territorial containment, confining the invaders to costal patches they'v already conquered.

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