Daniel Sarewitz is the editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University, and directs the Washington, D.C., office of the ASU Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. Before joining “Can Innovation Really Solve Society’s Problems?,” a Zócalo/Issues in Science and Technology event, he called into the virtual green room to talk about being from exit 145 on the Garden State Parkway, doing field work in Idaho during the run-up to the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and the allure of the blueschist.
What is your favorite piece of antiquated technology?
I love typewriters. There's an elegance about them. Also, because you can't relentlessly edit the way you can with a word processor, it forces you to get your ideas onto paper. I think I've become a worse writer as a result of not having typewriters.
What work of science fiction do you think is most predictive of our future at this moment?
We're so obsessed with longevity, that we haven't really thought about what it's like to be a person who's aging out of a culture, aging out of technological comfort, aging out of what's going on linguistically.
[Jonathan] Swift predicted all this. He actually has a scene in the third chapter of Gulliver's Travels, where he shows these people who are immortal. Gulliver thinks it’s this wonderful thing, but then he sees that they're actually occupying a sort of hell of isolation. It's nothing wonderful at all; it's just this sense that the world's left them behind.
You’re from New Jersey. What would you say is the most Jersey thing about you?
My love of Bruce Springsteen is certainly part of it. And my contempt for New Jersey, even though, when I go, it seems pretty darn nice to me.
I’m from Exit 145, by the way.
You got your PhD in geological sciences. So we have to ask: If you were a rock, what kind of rock would you be?
There are certain rocks that form at places where plates come together. They're high-pressure, low-temperature rocks—they’re called blueschist.
That combination is just a rare oppositional combination. It's kind of unstable; it's a non-equilibrium state of affairs. And I'm very aware of my own internal contradictions. I think that's part of what I like about it—I feel very acutely that I exist in a non-equilibrium state.
What do you do to decompress?
I walk a lot. I especially love walking without any stimulus. I do not listen to podcasts or music or anything else. The other thing is music. I love music. I am obsessed with trying to become a less-than-horrible jazz guitarist. I never will be. But it gives me an ambition that I can pursue until I'm too old to be able to pursue it.
Who is your favorite jazz musician?
I would say that I have a special fondness for Thelonious Monk. He’s kind of high pressure, low temperature, actually. He combines this weird, almost childlike dissonance with beauty and an amazing sense of time and mystery. He's wonderful, and his magic never ceases to make me happy.
Was there formative moment growing up when you knew that wanted to pursue science?
There was a class debate on the Apollo mission to the moon. I was the only one in the class willing to take the against side—that we shouldn't go to the moon. That tells you two things about me: One is every position, I think, has a reasonable oppositional position, and you can’t understand humans and the world if you don't understand the diversity of ways people interpret things. The other is my questioning about the social value of science.
In retrospect, I'm glad we went to the moon. I think it was a great thing to do. It was certainly overly expensive, and I think it's really interesting that we haven't been able to get back since then, which tells you something about progress. But that the fact that I was the one who felt compelled to take up the “no, we shouldn't go to the moon” position, and no one else would, probably tells you more about me than you want to know.
What was informing that contrarian opinion at the time?
Even though I was a kid, I was very much influenced by the politics of the ’60s. I made what we would call now an opportunity-cost argument, which is that we should be spending that money on education, and equity, not on sending two guys to the moon. Now, if I were to make that argument, I'd realize that my assumption about shifting the expenditures and the magnitude of expenditures wouldn't make much difference, and it wouldn't be doable anyway. But at the time, I saw it simply as why are we doing that rather than this, which is more needed and more necessary. The other thing is, I think one comes to realize that we can do lots of things simultaneously.
You’ve been all over the world for field work. What’s one memorable story from your time as a geologist?
There were infinite. But I'm going to mention the one that was actually from my first field experience as a graduate student, which was not in an exotic country, but Idaho. This was in the summer of 1979. So the run-up to the election between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. I was a liberal Democrat or even a left of liberal Democrat, and I ran into a rancher and talked to him because I wanted permission to be able to cross into his land and do some field work on his land. And we sat down and had a conversation for three or four hours, in which I was exposed to the world of very conservative person, and what a wonderful warm human being he was, even though I probably never talked to anyone before who had made a staunch defense of why owning a handgun was important.
The encounter with the other—and the humanizing of the other—that was really powerful for me. And it's been a real important theme for the way I try to engage the world, to try to understand the world ever since. Maybe he was as baffled by my politics as I was by his, but it was a moment of connection and learning that has stuck with me.