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Of Manhattan Projects and Moonshots

Palko writes:

I think we have reversed the symbolic meaning of a Manhattan project and a moonshot.

He explains:

The former has come to mean a large, focus, and dedicated commitment to rapidly addressing a challenging but solvable problem. The second has come to mean trying to do something so fantastic it seems impossible.

But, he writes:

The reality was largely the opposite. Building an atomic bomb was an incredible goal that required significant advances in our understanding of the underlying scientific principles. Getting to the moon was mainly a question of committing ourselves to spending a nontrivial chunk of our GDP on an undertaking that was hugely ambitious in terms of scale but which relied on technology that was already well-established by the beginning of the Sixties.


  1. jim says:

    So where does controlling the cost of health care land on the “Manhattan Project” – “moonshot” spectrum?

    • Ned says:

      yes, economics is the real issue… not technology.

      Many years of previous research had shown the ManhatanProject & Moonshot to be feasible — the key factor was economic resources (time & money). American taxpayers cheerfully volunteered to fund both projects ?

      Wars waste vast amounts of blood and trasure.
      The Apollo Proram was a totally unnecessary effort to score political points during the Cold War.

      • Renzo Alves says:

        Wars costs (aka waste) a lot averaged over the entire economy, but some segments of the population do very well. Sometimes wars cost less than the cost of not having the war, assuming that other alternatives failed to yield expected results.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I don’t see the real problem as being “controlling the cost of healthcare”, but as “providing good healthcare to all”. Solving this problem is like the the Moonshot — it requires “mainly a question of committing ourselves to spending [redistributing?] a nontrivial chunk of our GDP on an undertaking that [is] hugely ambitious in terms of scale but which relie[s] on technology that [i]s already well-established”

      • David J. Littleboy says:

        Another +1.

        “technology that [i]s already well-established”

        Yes. Very well established. Every other industrialized country (and a lot of developing countries as well) provide affordable health care to all their citizens (and often all their residents). The last I checked, the US spends twice what anyone else spends, and three times what Japan spends (per person). And gets worse results. Insanities like “preexisting conditions” “being billed for out of network providers” just don’t exists anywhere but the US.

        But it would be mostly redistributing. We’re already spending twice as much as anyone else, so some folks on the gravy train are going to be redistributed off said train…

        • gdanning says:

          I am skeptical that the US gets worse results. This is from the Heritage Foundation, so of course it is to be taken with a large grain of salt, but it is my understanding that the facts it cites re cancer survival rates, etc, etc, are broadly true:

          But, I am certainly not willing to claim that high spending causes those outcomes, nor that, even if it does, we are getting our moneys’ worth. But the “worse results” claim is a dubious one.

          • David J. Littleboy says:

            You could check Japan’s maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality rates vs. those for the US if you think we’re doing so great…

            And speaking of right wing think tanks and things, overmedication (last I checked, over 12% of the US is on antidepressants, vast numbers of kids are on stimulants, and then there’s the opioid crisis) is beyond excessive in the US, and despite the fears of “rationing health care”, it sure looks like we could use some of that. Also, we’re real slow at stopping doing things that have been proven to not work: stents, knee surgery come to mind.

            (If you get nasty lower back pain in Japan, you get NSAIDs and physical therapy. In the US, I’d be an opioid statistic. Sure, the first couple of weeks were not fun. But I’m still alive…)

            • Gdanning says:

              I didn’t say “we are doing great.” I said we don’t get worse outcomes. And on those measures on which the US does poorly, I am skeptical that the health care system is to blame. Eg, my understanding is that high rates of maternal obesity drive the maternal morbidity and mortality rates which you cite.

              I am sure that the US overmedicates, but I am also sure that there are things that the US health care system does well relative to other countries.

              • David J. Littleboy says:

                Being “sure” and having some data that’s not from a right-wing think tank are different things.

                Off hand, the opioid epidemic is such a humongous disaster that I can’t see how the US could be anything but substantially worse medically than any other industrialized country (although Canada may also have an opioid problem). (I realize that the opioid disaster has switched from prescription to illegal drugs, but the illegal drug rate was steady, and much lower than it is now, prior to the epidemic. The US is a wildly different place than it was 25 years ago, due to the insane over prescription of opioids.)

                But you may have a point on obesity. I worked at the Tokyo office of (one corner of) one of the largest US tech corporations (at the time, it’s been split up since), and an expat friend mentioned that his boss back in the states was pregnant and having trouble finding a doc that would take her. She was obese, smoked, and her husband was a lawyer.

                But, oops. This article doesn’t back up your idea about the otherwise wonderfulness of US maternal care, though. It sounds as though a far better explanation for our maternal mortality problem is that we don’t give a damn and are not even trying.


  2. Huh! says:

    You’d think Manhattan project would stand for atrocity, or failure to think about the consequences of scientific research, or something like this.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Misunderstanding. The Manhattan Project wasn’t to build an atomic bomb but to see if they could build one because if they could then maybe the Germans could, and if they had such a weapon it would be the end of us. It turned out to be doable. The space race was more doable by orders of magnitude. They had to develop fly by wire methods, which meant they knew what they needed to do, and from that it broke down to questions like can we design an input system for controlling and programming. They had to shrink guidance systems but that didn’t challenge the limits of our understanding of physics.

    You can think of this in general math terms as the difference between counting steps when you know the endpoint, and can describe that endpoint, which adds layers of determinability and definiteness to the process and thus to the curve and the areas of ‘work’ under it. We look back at the a-bomb and think that was known but it wasn’t. They were working with an indefinite endpoint, which meant they were defining the determinable space by success at each layer while planning ahead just in case they were right. We built Oak Ridge and Hanford in case the science worked because we’d then need what they made. They were designing a trip across an unknown space using clues and estimating what they’d need down the line if they were reading the clues right.

    As to things like health care, the head of NASA in the 1960’s famously said that going to the moon was a solvable problem as opposed to race relations, social inequities, and problems of relative prosperity. The same is true of healthcare if you think it through. Example: it’s quite easy to imagine that if we spend x then we’ll get a system which covers everyone for some level of care. But we implicitly assume in that the kind of technological process that has occurred will continue to occur (or we don’t care because, you know, we already have the treatments we need). These advances rely on a system that doesn’t control costs well – and sometimes not at all. This system depends on access to capital markets which only fund things because they can make money from them. How does that work if control costs across the system?

    Is there another country which carries a higher load for advancing the state of medicine than the US? If there is – and there isn’t – these also depend on the nature of the US system not controlling costs, not imposing treatment standards down from a bureaucracy, etc. This is a real complication that gets ignored, and it’s the kind of thing that you actually need to address if you shift the medical system. Or a lot of people who read this blog may need to find other occupations in the future.

    • Nah, healthcare for all is trivial technically. First you eliminate the tax system in favor of a flat tax and UBI. Technically trivial, politically hard. Next as part of this system you implement a Clearinghouse for medical billing similar to Clearinghouse for checks… everyone who bills for medical services sends the bill to the govt clearinghouse. who aggregates it and presents a single point of payment. Also technically fairly trivial, certainly easier than the shit we have now. Finally the government becomes a stop loss insurer for everyone. Anything over say 15% GDP per capital is covered by the government at negotiated rates (ie. replace Medicare with a universal stop loss insurance). Finally pass a law saying providers can not charge more to private payers than the rate they charge the govt stop loss insurance…

      To complete the equivalence you allow UBI to vary with age and ensure that the elderly get enough UBI to cover their pre stop loss insurance… and yet if they are healthy they can use this UBI for whatever they want so market forces of competition for dollars / benefits reigns.

      this stuff is trivial. the hard stuff is how to eliminate corruption and pandering in the govt so rational policies such as the above could get put in place

  4. JFA says:

    I have always had this feeling that maybe getting to the moon wasn’t actually that hard. Difficult, technically challenging, etc… yeah sure. But given the amount of times I’ve heard someone say, “We put a man on the moon, but we can’t do X!” maybe getting to the moon wasn’t that hard in the grand scheme of things. Really, I just want gas pumps to be able to determine that the card I am using is in fact a credit card without having to ask “Is this a debit card?” We put a man on the moon for crying out loud!

  5. Well, seems to me there’s a lot of oversimplification here.

    We have, for example, technologies in hand which will draw down Carbon Dioxide in atmosphere and, if we can find some place or way to sequester it, that would be a good thing. But the trouble is these presently cost US$200/tonne CO2 to US$500/tonne CO2 and to draw down substantial quantities (say, maybe, 70 ppm CO2) the resulting cost is multiples of the Gross World Product.

    So, yes, you can entertain technological improvements that will draw down cheaper, maybe US$10/tonne CO2 to US$100/tonne CO2 and, while still horrifically expensive for the job at hand, these begin to break into the world of feasibility.

    But, still, setting aside the question of where these all will be put and how it will be put there without emitting lots of CO2 for energy, it’s one thing to have a technique in hand and quite another to scale it up to drawing down that 70 ppm CO2. Also, should this be done in any case, or while we continue to collectively emit about 5 ppm CO2 of which about 2 ppm CO2 remains in atmosphere? If the latter remains intact, the job is much harder, because drawdown needs to be done while we continue to emit the CO2. So it would be that much more expensive.

    Then there is the time scale: How long should the 70 ppm be drawn down? It depends on how much global infrastructure we want to build. Is doing it in two centuries sufficient? How will that be run and paid for for that amount of time? And if it is not, how will it be paid for over the short term?

    My point is that if the scale of the problem is sufficiently large, the kinds of tradeoffs discussed above with respect to the Manhattan Project or Apollo or even World War II are completely misleading. In comparison to drawdown, for example, those were trivial.

  6. Dan F. says:

    He is wrong in his judgment about both the Manhattan Project and the moon project. In both cases the participants (at a high enough level) had quite clear that the project could succeed and the challenge was fundamentally one of engineering, the theory being both solid and sufficiently clear. In both cases the engineering challenges are serious, as evidence by the fact that only large state run entities have ever realized either project. If there had not been conviction that these things would succeed they would not have been tried.

    People always forget that getting to the moon was comparatively easy next to getting back from the moon alive.

    Deep water oil platforms are an engineering enterprise of probably comparable difficulty to either of these projects.

    • Kostya says:

      I came to make a similar comment regarding the Manhattan Project. The underlying physics and chemistry of the bomb (at least the gun-type device) was pretty well understood. The Manhattan Projection was mostly an engineering problem of isotope separation, which seemed to require almost incalculably large amounts of industrial resources at the time the project was undertaken. And in the end, that’s exactly what happened. Dozens of factories were built and over 100,000 workers were employed (during wartime no less!).

    • Mark Palko says:

      Here’s a contemporary comment from Willy Ley (circa 1950). He was talking about reactors, not bombs, but the basic point was that advances in nuclear energy came faster than anyone anticipated.

      “Then, of course, there is the possibility of using atomic energy. If some 15 years ago, a skeptical audience had been polled as to which of the two “impossibilities” – – moon ship and large scale controlled-release of atomic energy – – they considered less fantastic, the poll would probably have been 100% in favor of the moon ship. As history turned out, atomic energy came first, and it is now permissible to speculate whether the one may not be the key to the other.”

  7. Kerim says:

    What made the moon landing project particularly ambitious was the tight schedule. JFK declared in 1961 that the US will put a man on the moon before the end of the decade and it was achieved in the nick of time (July 1969). The BBC made a really nice documentary last year called “13 Minutes to the Moon”, where several engineers say that they were not sure they could meet the deadline. So, yes, everyone thought they could put a man on the moon. But whether they could do that by the end of 1969 was another matter.

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