Weekly Dose of Optimism #39
Starship, How Solar Got Cheap, AgARDA, Against Safetyism, Dr. Peter Attia
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome back to our 39th Weekly Dose of Optimism.
We got exploding rockets, a case for AgARDA & a case against safetyism, and longevity learnings. At bit all over the place, but in a good way.
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(1) Starship Flight Test
On 4/20 (of course, nice), SpaceX achieved its primary objective of getting Starship off the ground.
Starship, which will eventually attempt to take humans to the moon and Mars, is the largest and most powerful rocket ever constructed, and is now the largest and most powerful rocket ever to launch. Even though the rocket exploded minutes after launch, it was a big accomplishment to just get this bigboi in the air.
We’ve been critical of Elon’s work at Twitter. It’s easy to forget that he’s working on civilization-changing, big engineering problems like Starship when he’s being a poopoohead on his rotting website. But props where props are due. Duality of man and all that.
While Elon’s biggest critics and those who generally dislike cool shit are focusing on the fact that the rocket blew up, launching and learning on a budget that’s minuscule compared to NASA’s is a big accomplishment. SpaceX continues to make the world stop and stare in wonder, and we need more of that.
Brian Potter in Construction Pysics
Solar PV’s low cost is the result of it steadily falling in price over many decades. In 1957 solar PV electricity cost roughly $300,000 per megawatt-hour in 2019 dollars. By 2019, in the sunniest locations that had fallen to roughly $20 per megawatt-hour, 15,000 times less. And it's still getting cheaper.
We love us a good learning curve here at Not Boring. From Moore’s Law to DNA sequencing to solar PV prices, these curves show costs declining and performance improving exponentially over time, as if by magic 🪄
But the most magical thing about learning curves is that they’re not magical at all. They’re the result of millions of individual, corporate, and national efforts over decades that somehow shake out into these relatively smooth, beautiful curves.
In this two-part piece, Brian Potter, the author of one of our favorite blogs, Construction Physics, which breaks down why things are built the way they are, explains everything that’s gone into shrinking the cost of solar PV electricity by 15,000x over the past seven decades.
From the earliest exploration of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 by the dad of the guy who discovered radioactivity to the invention of the modern PV cell at (where else?) Bell Labs in 1954 to the first big solar PV purchases by (who else?) US and Russian aerospace and defense agencies in 1958 to the international competition across the US, Japan, Germany, and China to produce the most and cheapest cells, Potter’s piece is a comprehensive look at how one of the world’s most important curves came to be.
We celebrate humanity’s big, flashy achievements here, but sometimes, it’s the composition of small improvements that power the greatest progress.
Adin Richards for The Institute for Progress
ARPA programs succeed because of intense focus on a few important objectives, pursued nimbly with whatever technology is best suited to meet the goal. AgARDA should focus on three primary technological areas:
Passive monitoring of crop fields and livestock for known and novel diseases
Genetically engineering more productive, stress-tolerant plants that are less reliant on farming inputs
The U.S. was once the leader in farming innovation, but that position has weakened over time as we’ve transformed into a services economy. Richards makes the case that the government needs to fund and support the new Agricultural Advanced Research Development Agency (AgARDA) it created in the 2018 Farm Bill and details the top three initiatives the agency should focus on. Ultimately, it comes down to protecting a U.S. leadership position in food and monitoring threats against our food supply.
The ARPA/ARDA (Advanced Research Project/Development Agencies) model is fascinating and effective. You likely know DARPA (Defense Advance Research Projects Agency), which was deeply involved in the development of the Internet, GPS, and drones. Because of DARPA’s effectiveness in funding moonshot tech and shepherding it to market via DOD contracts, the government has begun experimenting with more ARPA/ARDAs recently, like ARPA-E (2009) for energy and ARPA-H (2022) for biotech and health. While results have been mixed, these programs have the potential to combine the resources of the government with the flexibility of venture-like funding models.
As with solar and so many of our biggest technological achievements, we can tackle bigger challenges when government, academia, and industry work together effectively, and we hope AgARDA can have a DARPA-like impact on food.
Byrne Hobart and Tobias Huber for Pirate Wires
Now, whether we think that an AI apocalypse is imminent or the lab-leak hypothesis is correct or not, by mitigating or suppressing visible risks, safetyism is often creating invisible or hidden risks that are far more consequential or impactful than the risks it attempts to mitigate. In a way, this makes sense: creating a new technology and deploying it widely entails a definite vision for the future. But a focus on the risks means a definite vision of the past, and a more stochastic model of what the future might hold. Given time’s annoying habit of only moving in one direction, we have no choice but to live in somebody’s future — the question is whether it’s somebody with a plan or somebody with a neurosis.
Call it safetyism. Risk aversion. Doomerism. Call it whatever you want. (We’ll call it safetyism for consistency’s sake). But freaking out about the future, and letting that freakout prevent advancement has become an increasingly popular stance. Pessimists sound smart, optimists make money. Safetyists sound smart, optimists make progress.
Friend of the newsletter, Byrne Hobart, and Tobias Huber explain why safetyism is both illogical and dangerous. These two quotes capture the crux of the argument:
Obsessively attempting to eliminate all visible risks often creates invisible risks that are far more consequential for human flourishing.
Whether it’s nuclear energy, AI, biotech, or any other emerging technology, what all these cases have in common is that — by obstructing technological progress — safetyism has an extremely high civilizational opportunity cost.
We worry about the potential risks of nuclear energy, we get the reality of dirtier and more deadly fossil fuels. Often, the downsides created by safetyism aren’t as clear as the nuclear example: “by mitigating or suppressing visible risks, safetyism is often creating invisible or hidden risks that are far more consequential or impactful than the risks it attempts to mitigate.” While we worry about AI killing us all, for example, millions will die of diseases that AI could help detect or even cure.
This isn’t a call to scream YOLO as we indiscriminately create new technologies with zero regards for the consequences, but it’s an important reminder that trying to play it safe is often the riskiest move of all.
Longevity and optimism are intertwined. Longevity folks want to live longer because they believe life is worth living for as long and as well as you can. Your average optimist probably has a pretty similar perspective, even if they are not singularly focused on the length and quality of life. To care about living well is to be an optimist.
So if you’re reading this newsletter, you’re likely interested in longevity (or healthspan) — and Dr. Peter Attia is the world’s leading (or most popular) expert on the topic. He recently released his long-awaited book “Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity” and went on Patrick O’Shaughness’y podcast to discuss it at length (see what I did there?).
According to Attia, there are five areas over which we have agency that can meaningful impact healthspan: nutrition, exercise, sleep, pharmacology (drugs, supplements, etc), and tools around mental health. But these are not all created equal: exercise has a disproportionate impact on longevity and healthspan.
Speaking of exercise and supplements…
Packy here, sneaking this in while Dan’s not looking. Dan did his biggest podcast interview yet, talking about creating Create, working on Not Boring, and family. I’m very grateful that I get to work with my brother and proud of everything he’s doing (HUGE day yesterday despite being attacked by an unscrupulous competitor), and this is as good an overview of Dan’s world as there is.
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Thanks for reading,