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January 2, 2013

The reimagined, revamped print version of MIT Technology Review, with its provocative Buzz Aldrin cover, inspired (mostly) positive reader reaction. Among those who wrote in to offer kudos was Rasiklal P. Shah, of Latham, New York: “I’ve been reading Technology Review since 1967, but the latest issue is amazing. I couldn’t put it down until I’d read it cover to cover. All of the goals of your redesign have paid off in amazing ways.”

Brad Peters of Costa Mesa, California, felt likewise: “That zinger on the cover—that’s got to be the best cover I’ve seen, on any magazine, in half a century.”

Reiner Decher of Seattle, on the other hand, says he’s seen, in our very pages, the same glorification of the trivial that we’re now bemoaning. He says he’d like to see the magazine help figure out how we move forward in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Sandy. “Instead, I see Buzz Aldrin asking mind-blowingly superficial questions. In a previous issue, I see articles about the most promising scientists under the age of 35. Where is the social benefit in that?”

Editor in chief Jason Pontin summed up the issue with his essay “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems,” in which he looked into why our society used to find it so much easier to tackle what seemed like intractable difficulties. Darrell Briggs of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, argued that the problem is more fundamental—we’re so reliant on machines that we no longer trust our own brains: “The Apollo onboard computer had the horsepower of an Atari game. If you asked any engineer who graduated in the last 20 years if he or she could put a man on the moon using only that equipment, they’d look at you like you were crazy. Back in the ’90s I was trying to solve problems with test probes used on semiconductor wafers. I went to a young mechanical engineer and outlined the problem. He told me it would take three months to build a model and test the idea. I told him to throw away the computer on his desk and use the one on his shoulders. That afternoon he came to me with a look of wonder on his face. He’d had an epiphany: he could solve a real problem using only pencil and paper and what he was taught in some Engineering 101 course.”

In “The Deferred Dreams of Mars,” deputy editor Brian Bergstein wrote about a pocket within NASA where aspirations of a manned mission to the Red Planet live on. Robert J. Yaes of Gaithersburg, Maryland, responded: let’s just give up, already. “I am amazed that 40 years after the last Apollo mission we are still unable to admit that human space exploration is a dead-end technology. It has no future because, while we can design devices to function in any extraterrestrial environment, human beings were ‘designed,’ by three billion years of natural selection, to survive only in the narrow range of conditions found at the surface of the Earth. Thus for every pound of human we send into space, we have to send a ton of equipment to maintain life. So while a return to the moon is feasible, a similar trip to Mars may be impossible even if we devote our entire gross national product to the project.”

Stanley D. Young of Fort Collins, Colorado, wrote: “I’m a baby boomer who was caught up in the excitement of the moon program, but it doesn’t stand up to critical examination now. We’re stuck here on our globe. It can be a wonderful Eden as long as we don’t screw it up too much.”

Howard Hendrix of Shaver Lake, California, on the other hand, felt the Mars effort has an appeal that transcends logic. “As astronaut Stan Love says, ‘We like it, as people, when people do things. If all you’re after is science data—sure, send robots. But we as human beings feel an attachment when humans go and do things like this.’ To those who are keeping the flame of human Mars exploration alive, I can only say: Shine on, you crazy diamonds.”

Hendrix had a similarly pro-human reaction to Nicholas Carr’s feature “The Crisis in Higher Education” and its take on the rise of massive open online courses: “The story makes clear that the current crop of educational corporations are more about stimulating the development of artificial intelligence through the manipulation of massive data sets than about stimulating the development of human intelligence. I’ll take the redundancies of flawed, old-school humans over the shiny new profbots anytime.”

MIT Technology Review, One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142
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