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  • Writer's pictureAl DuPree

Some Thoughts on "the train" ...

I spent a couple of years working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (commonly referred to as NIST). I knew about NIST through the security standards they periodically produced and published for IT folks. Beyond that? Didn't know much.

NIST occupies about 500 acres in the middle of Gaithersburg, Maryland. So my first few weeks there I walked around a lot, trying to get lost so that I could "find myself" and get to know the layout of the place. One walk took me past a building with three rather modest black and white metal signs affixed to the side of the building. The signs proclaimed that three previous Nobel laureates in physics at some time or other worked within.

Which is about when ... I sorta figured I'd "found myself". And oh boy ...

Over the course of the next couple of years I was exposed to (no exaggeration or hyperbole here) some of the brightest people on the planet. And I was exposed to some of the things they do, and some of the things they think about, and just how they see the world ... in general terms. And some of those things are truly incredible (and damned hard to understand).

Which is when it hit me one day:

In so many ways, our society is akin to a train. A very long train at that. At the front of that train? Are people who have spent tremendous time and effort developing expertise or a body of knowledge (or both) throughout their lives. They are in a very real sense "the engines" that drive innovation and change all around us. At the back of the train? People who get up every day, and who may or may not go to work, but fundamentally spend the vast majority of their lives breathing in and out and not much more.

And there's no judgment here. The life that you have is yours to do with as you please. And there are lots and lots of folks in the cars in between the engine and the caboose. So the world is not made up solely of the two extremes. In fact, that's where the vast majority of us hang out. Me? After working at NIST? I figure I'm just a little more than half way back ... the dining car maybe?)

Anyway here's the thing:

The front of the train? Up where quantum mechanics is considered; where a NIST scientist devises an atomic clock that is calculated to not lose accuracy for a period into the future longer than time itself has existed (that one? was really tough to wrap my head around); where NASA engineers and scientists work to investigate a solar system with satellites now circling other worlds and robots (including a helicopter) on other planets operated remotely from right here on Earth. Up there in the engine compartment the conversations veer into topics like spooky entanglement; or the long term consequences of income inequality; or perhaps what options exist for solutions since it appears we're headed into a much warmer world. Meanwhile back in the caboose? Topics of conversation include an array of flat earth theories; the return of JFK (and son) from the dead at the very site where JFK was assassinated; and perhaps some of the finer points of Kim Khardashian's ass.

Two very different worlds. And as I said I'm not here to evaluate relative value (or to knock Kim's derrière) but simply to make an observation. To be sure, society has always had strata

or layers which represent significant "distance" between it's various segments. In the time of Jesus, less than one percent of the population could read or write. Crazy as it might sound, that statistic hasn't changed much in some segments of our society today. And there's lots of different ways to measure distance between segments as well. The church and Galileo, as another example, had more than their share of differences. And there was significant distance between their respective train cars.

But the difference between now and then? The amassing of information and accumulation of knowledge up front is stretching the distance between front and back. And it's doing so at an ever increasing rate. What they know, and what they are doing with what they know, at the front of the train? Has enormous consequences for all of us. At the front of the train they've designed a vaccine (based on messenger RNA) and a delivery system (based on a lipid) to address the emergence of a pathogen no one saw coming (well only the folks at the front of the train did, anyway). And they delivered it in record time. Meanwhile the folks at the back of the train? Try to make some sense of the whole situation (both the pathogen and the vaccine) through appealing to trusted sources for advice and counsel. Why? Because none of us is capable of keeping up with the rate of change in that amassing and accumulation. At which point "trust" becomes the coin of the realm (it always was really, now it's way way more pronounced).

I don't profess to know what all of the consequences of such things are. But I don't think its either an accident or particularly unreasonable in such a situation for large segments of the population to disagree on what constitutes "fact" or "truth" or "news" in such circumstances. In large part? The two ends of the train live in entirely different "worlds" (some might contend "universes") And I don't think it's particularly surprising that they regard one another with significant suspicion. And trust? Is evaporating pretty fast. Which is compounded and exacerbated by ... we'll just say the dynamics of our politics.

So then there is a basis for understanding some of what's been happening. The 'train model' goes a long way toward comprehending the chants of "blood and soil" and "you will not replace us" in Charlottesville several years ago. But it doesn't do much to explain Marjorie Taylor Greene's theory on lasers from space.

But such an explanation has it's obvious limits.

While at NIST part of my division was located in Boulder Colorado where I, in fact, met the woman who invented the clock (there are some who speculate that she might have two Nobels in her). I met a number of incredible folks out there as well.

One of whom happens to be a very active member of the Colorado Flat Earth Society.

Go figure.

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Dec 03, 2021

I thought that was you I glimpsed in the dining car.

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