1.07 Astropreneurs

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket seconds after launch at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in May 2016. Photo by Wade Roush.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket seconds after launch at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in May 2016. Photo by Wade Roush.

The Martian by Andy Weir wasn’t the first book about space exploration by a non-famous author that got made into a big Hollywood movie. Space-movie buffs know that back in 1998, a former NASA engineer named Homer Hickam wrote a memoir called Rocket Boys that was made into the 1999 film October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Laura Dern.

What’s less widely known is that Hickam followed up that success with his first book-length work of fiction, a 1999 cult hit called Back to the Moon. It was a techno-thriller about a renegade scientist who hijacks a space shuttle and figures out how to fly it all the way to the moon, to gather a rare helium isotope needed as a fuel for nuclear fusion.

I ate up the Hickam novel, both because I was working at NASA at the time and because I was impatient for our actual return to the moon.

To me, the space shuttle was an amazing invention, but it felt like a technological dead end, forever limited (the antics in Hickam’s book notwithstanding) to low-earth orbit. As an “orphan of Apollo”—born a few years too late to remember NASA’s six moon landings between 1969 and 1972—I’d been waiting a long time for someone to figure out how we’ll really travel back to the moon, and then beyond.

Today we’re still waiting. There’s some talk within NASA about sending astronauts to orbit the moon aboard the new Orion spacecraft as soon as 2018, some three to five years earlier than previously planned. SpaceX wants to do something similar. But even if those plans pan out, the astronauts wouldn’t touch down. And while the European Space Agency has proposed building a Moon Village to take the place of the International Space Station (which is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024), there’s no timeline for that project yet.

In fact, it looks like the next batch of spacecraft heading to the lunar surface will be the privately operated robotic rovers built by the five teams competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. Whichever team is the first to land their rover first, maneuver it 500 meters across the surface, and send back high-definition video pictures will win the $20 million first prize. (The pressure is on, since the prize expires after December 31, 2017, but after years of delays, all five GLXP teams now have rocket rides reserved.)

And that could be a harbinger of a new era of space exploration led, in large part, by private, non-governmental entities. These days, national space agencies just don’t seem to have the vision, the cash, or the popular support needed to initiate humanity’s next big steps into space. They’ve left a leadership vacuum as big as space itself. And it’s being filled by dozens of private companies of all scales—not just the giant aerospace manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Airbus and the makers of the new generation of reusable rockets like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, but also—and just as intriguingly—a raft of smaller startups.

This week’s episode of Soonish is all about those “astropreneurs,” the early-stage space entrepreneurs who hope to make it big by inventing faster, better, cheaper technologies for propulsion, surveillance, manufacturing, and other activities in space.

Many of these companies are benefiting from the introduction of the Cubesat design specification, an open standard built around 10x10x10-centimeter blocks that can be combined into satellites of arbitrary size. There’s a growing supply chain of Cubesat components, with some merchants even offering parts on Amazon. That means space startups can build satellites mostly using off-the-shelf technology, while focusing the real innovation and investment on the components that are core to their mission. In the case of Lunar Station, a startup featured in this week’s episode, that’s a high-definition digital video camera that will capture and retransmit live-stream video of the moon.

But other startups are already looking beyond the microsatellite market. Accion Systems in Boston, another company featured in this episode, started off thinking that it would offer its new liquid-propellant-based ion engines solely to Cubesat builders. But now the company also wants to supply its engines to makers of larger satellites with masses of 50kg to 150kg, according to CEO Natalya Bailey.

Space offers not just microgravity but an unfettered view of the heavens and the earth. So tomorrow’s space economy will likely revolve around a mix of activities such as Earth observation, manufacturing, and mining and fuel production. And it’s not just billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk pouring money into these visions: venture capital funds put more than $2 billion into space companies in 2015. (More recent figures aren’t available yet.) And according to Ariel Waldman, a space activist and author who's also featured in this episode, there are more ways than ever for average citizens to get involved in space exploration.

“It’s probably a little bit frothy right now, but in the longer term, commercial space is here to stay,” says Bailey at Accion Systems, which has raised nearly $10 million in venture backing. “When people said ‘Let's lay down hundreds and hundreds of miles of copper wire to communicate with people,’ I'm sure some folks thought that was crazy too. I think we're just at another inflection point like that. And sure, we may lose some of the new space startups. But I think space is just going to continue to become more and more present in our lives.”

It's about time.


See also

The Full Ariel Waldman Interview



Blair DeWitt, co-founder and CEO, Lunar Station

Natalya Bailey, co-founder and CEO, Accion Systems

Ariel Waldman, founder, SpaceHack.org

Barret Schlegelmilch, co-founder and COO, Lunar Station



Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal, with detailed transcripts and audio recordings of the mission

Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

Google Lunar X Prize

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program

Reaching for the Stars, Across 4.37 Light-Years, by Dennis Overbye, The New York Times, April 12, 2016


Trump advisers’ space plan: To moon, Mars and beyond, by Bryan Bender, Politico, February 9, 2017

What’s It Like in Space?: Stories from Astronauts Who’ve Been There, by Ariel Waldman



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

All additional music by Podington Bear:

Waves of Intensity from the album Foreboding

Vector Melody from the album Rhythm & Strings

Bountiful from the album Melodic Ambient

Twill from the album Marimba, Vibraphone, Chimes & Bells

Deep Pools from the album Inspiring

Moonglow from the album Marimba, Vibraphone, Chimes & Bells 

Kitten from the album Background

Data from the album by Panoramic / Ambient

Brightening from the album Panoramic / Ambient 

Podstrings from the album Rhythm & Strings 


Special Thanks

Thanks to my guests for taking the time to join this week’s show: Natalya Bailey, Blair Dewitt, Barret Schlegelmilch, and Ariel Waldman.

Schlegelmilch’s invitation to the New Space Age Conference that he organized at the MIT Sloan School of Management in March 2017 was the key to getting this whole episode started.

Dan Novy kindly invited me to the MIT Media Lab space conference Beyond the Cradle, which was held the very next day and was also amazing.

Christian Bailey at Curated Innovation helped to set up my interview with his wife Natalya Bailey, née Brikner.

Sean Casey at the Silicon Valley Space Center helped orient me to the space entrepreneurship scene on the West Coast.


Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

1.06: Origin Story

In most episodes of Soonish, I latch on to a specific area of technology, and I find experts who can explain what’s changing and help us explore how those changes will affect everyone’s lives.

That’s what I usually do, anyway. This week's episode is a little bit different.

I’ve been joking to people that the first five episodes of the show were brought to you by the letter M. The first one was about Movies. And then I did shows about Monorails, Museums, Manufacturing, and Meat. Well, today I’ve got one more M-word for you, and it’s Meta.

Today's episode is about the podcast itself, where it came from, and why I’m doing it. In other words, it's the Soonish origin story.

Check out the episode to hear how Carl Sagan blinded me with science—and gave me my first newspaper story. And how that eventually led to a career as a print writer covering science, technology, and their social and cultural impacts.

As the episode hints, I've long had a bad case of audio envy. I first contracted it around 2007, when I discovered RadioLab. The symptoms worsened considerably when Roman Mars started putting out the awesome 99% Invisible in 2010. And they became intolerable in recent years, with the emergence of compelling personal shows like Rose Eveleth's Flash Forward and Eric Molinsky's Imaginary Worlds. (H/t to Eric for the "origin story" concept, by the way.)

The only cure for this illness, it turns out, was to start making audio myself. 

When I tell people I've started a podcast, their first question is always: What's it about? And the second question is always: How do you monetize a podcast? Which is really a polite way of saying: are you nuts? Aren't you throwing away your livelihood?

Well, I always reply, the business models needed to support independent audio producers are still evolving. To support my new audio habit, I'm still doing some freelance and consulting work on the side. And I'm working to build Soonish's audience to the point where advertisers might be interested.

But starting this week, I have a better answer. Now Soonish is on Patreon, which means regular listeners can become regular supporters!

For indie creators, content subscription platforms like Patreon are a godsend. Here's how New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo put it recently

It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal this is….If subscriptions keep taking off, it won’t just mean that some of your favorite creators will survive the internet. It could also make for a profound shift in the way we find and support new cultural talent.

That's certainly what I'm hoping for. I've long been using Patreon and similar platforms to send donations to shows and organizations I care about, like Gastropod and The Story Collider and Radiotopia. Now I'm inviting Soonish fans to send some love my way.

Here's a little video I made to explain the Patreon campaign. I hope you'll head over to patreon.com/soonish to check out the great rewards available at each pledge level, and consider donating yourself.

Thanks so much for being part of the Soonish community—and for caring about the future.



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Golden Hour from the album Springtime by Podington Bear

Curious Process from the album Reflective by Podington Bear

Fives from the album Building by Podington Bear

Chimera from the album Reflective by Podington Bear

K2 from the album by Inspiring by Podington Bear


Special Thanks

Graham Ramsay listened to an early version of this episode and also reviewed the draft materials for my Patreon page.  Mark Pelofsky commented on an early version of this episode.


Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com



1.05: Meat Without the Moo

In this episode of Soonish, we start from one simple idea: On a planet that will likely be home to 10 billion people by 2050, we’re going to have to think about replacing a lot of the meat we currently get from pigs, chickens, cattle, and fish with other forms of protein. We take a close look at where alternative-protein technology is going in the near future, and what those other forms might be. And we talk with people who are starting to think about the best ways to package and promote alternative-protein products.

There are all sorts of reasons why we’re probably approaching the point of “peak meat,” after which consumption of meat from farm animals will have to go down.

The biggest one is the environment. If everyone got as much of their protein from meat as denizens of Western countries currently do, there simply wouldn’t be enough land or water to raise all the needed animals. On top of that, we know that livestock agriculture is a major contributor to global warming. (When you count up the carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation, feed production, and farm transportation, and add in methane generation from belching cows and decaying manure, livestock accounts for as much as 18 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.)

And that’s to say nothing of the nutritional benefits of a diet that’s higher in plant-based foods, or of ethical concerns, shared by many, about the way farm animals are raised and slaughtered.

But this episode doesn’t dwell on the case for (or against) vegan or vegetarian diets. For a deep dive on all that, we recommend To Eat or Not To Eat Meat, a recent episode of the fantastic podcast Gastropod.

Rather, we ask: In a future where there’s a rising demand for protein—or at least, for a meaty centerpiece for each meal—what sources will be available other than traditional ones like fish, chickens, pigs, and cattle? And we look deeply into three answers.

  • Fiber-rich plants like jackfruit. In this episode we talk with Annie Ryu, who started The Jackfruit Company to buy jackfruit from farmers in India and package it for consumers in America. And we get some perspective on Annie's succcess from Adam Salomone, a foodtech industry observer and CEO of The Food Loft, a Boston-based coworking space for food and technology companies.
  • Insects. We visit Tiny Farms, a startup in California working to develop an industrial-scale way to farm tropical house crickets, an excellent source of protein (whether eaten plain or ground up as cricket flour for use in products like energy bars).
  • Cultured meat. Researchers in the burgeoning field of cellular agriculture are beginning to learn how to immortalize muscle cell lines from animals and grow them, under controlled conditions, into edible muscle tissue. Our introduction to this field comes from Natalie Rubio, a PhD student in biomedical engineering at Tufts University who’s the very first graduate student to receive a research fellowship from New Harvest, a New York-based nonprofit promoting cellular agriculture.

There’s a fourth alternative as well: plant-based “imitation meat” from companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. These products, often built around proteins from soy or peas, are marketed as meat look-alikes and taste-alikes. And while they’re perfectly tasty (as my dinner guests can tell you), these companies may be stumbling unintentionally into the culinary equivalent of the uncanny valley.

That’s an idea from robotics that says people like mechanical-looking robots just fine, but they start to get creeped out by robots that look almost-but-not-quite-human. (The same goes for animated characters.) In a similar way, the harder companies try to make plant-based products look and taste like meat—going so far as to add “blood” from beets or plant-derived heme—the harder it may be for them to win over committed meat-eaters.

As Fast Company reporter Jessica Leber writes, these companies are “trying to convince the carnivore’s stomach, rather than his heart or mind, that he should eat less meat.” But the stomach knows the difference—and if the stomach rules, plants will lose. Veggie burgers will have to be better than meat to succeed in the marketplace, Leber and others argue. And so far, they’re just not.

“At best, assuming some amazing discoveries and research, the Impossible Foods burger will be merely as good as something literally everyone already has access to,” writes Dan Nosowitz at Modern Farmer. “This is a huge problem…imitation is never a good selling point.”

Beyond Meat and other plant-based “meat” products are important as part of an overall mix of meat alternatives. I agree with Natalie Rubio, who says in this episode: “Animal agriculture is such a huge, massive, impending problem that we need to come at it from all angles. We need so many people working on every possible type of solution as fast as possible, so that we can take away these negative impacts that are happening to our planet.”

A decade or two from now, people may be eating some plant-based simulated-meat products in place of meat from livestock. But they’ll also be eating new foods like jackfruit that can take the place of meat in a main dish, and insects, and actual meat that comes from laboratories. Today's episode tries to offer a glimpse into that world.


See also

The Full Adam Salomone Interview

The Full Natalie Rubio Interview



Graham Gordon Ramsay, composer, photographer, educator, author

Annie Ryu, founder and CEO, The Jackfruit Company

Adam Salomone, co-founder and CEO, The Food Loft

Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, founder and CEO, Tiny Farms

Natalie Rubio, Tissue Engineering Resource Center, Tufts University



Beware the Uncanny Valley of Veggie Burgers, Jessica Leber, Co.Exist from Fast Company, November 14, 2014

Beyond Meat, an El Segundo, CA-based startup offering the Beyond Burger, the Beast Burger, three varieties of Beyond Chicken strips, and two varieties of Beyond Beef crumble

Do Insects Feel Pain?, an informative post at the blog Relax, I’m an Entomologist

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Exo, a New York, NY-based startup offering food bars made with cricket protein

Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006

Memphis Meats, a San Francisco Bay Area company developing a way to produce cultured meat from animal cells

Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn, NY-based startup developing leather and other materials from cultured collagen.

Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley startup developing “beef,” “chicken,” “pork,” “fish,” and “yogurt” made entirely from plants

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan

To Eat or Not To Eat Meat, the February 14, 2017 episode of Gastropod from Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley

New Harvest, a non-profit funding research in cellular agriculture

Our Daily Bread, a 2005 documentary on industrial farming by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

The Problem With Veggie Burgers So Real They Bleed, Dan Nosowitz, Modern Farmer, October 24, 2014



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

No Squirrell Commotion from the album Background by Chad Crouch aka Podington Bear

Origami from the album Egress by Podington Bear

Belfast from the album Playful by Podington Bear

Puzzle Pieces from the album Music for Podcasts 2 by Lee Rosevere

Gauze from the album Panoramic by Podington Bear

Filaments from the album Inspiring by Podington Bear


Special Thanks

I got editorial notes on this episode from Mark Pelofsky. I connected with Natalie Rubio as the result of a tip from Tracy Staedter.


Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit 

1.04: Future Factories, With Workers Built In

In the metalworking area at TechShop San Francisco. Photo by Jim Fenton.

In the metalworking area at TechShop San Francisco. Photo by Jim Fenton.

Manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. That’s been the constant refrain of CEOs, economists, and journalists reacting to the loss of old-fashioned assembly line jobs in the U.S. (About 6 million such jobs have disappeared since 2000.)

The assertion typically surfaces as a rebuke to the idea that federal or state governments can stop manufacturers from using overseas labor, or force them to reopen old plants in the U.S. or build new ones that provide just as many jobs. Thanks to the twin forces of globalization and automation—or so this form of economic realism goes—it will always be cheaper to make things using robots or low-wage workers in other countries, and that’s that.

But what if this view is incomplete? What if it doesn’t account for a cultural and technological revolution sweeping the United States—one that promises to redefine manufacturing, make it drastically more accessible, and create a ladder to new kinds of jobs for unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers alike?

Mark Hatch, former CEO of TechShop and author of The Maker Movement Manifesto. Photo by Kevin Krejci.

Mark Hatch, former CEO of TechShop and author of The Maker Movement Manifesto. Photo by Kevin Krejci.

That’s the possibility this episode of Soonish explores.

Academics and policy experts have long called for an “advanced manufacturing” revolution in the U.S. that would improve industrial performance by applying new technologies, especially software and robots, to outmoded processes. But jobs aren’t usually part of that discussion. In fact, the default strategy for improving factory productivity—which is usually measured in terms of output per worker—is simply to lower the denominator in the equation by using machines to replace even more workers.

But after reading a lot about this area and talking to experts, I've begun to believe that there’s an alternative future where factories, instead of getting bigger and more automated, get smaller and more worker-centric.

Several things are happening at once to make that future more likely.

Everett Mills in Lawrence, MA, the former textile mill that's now home to 99Degrees. Photo by Wade Roush.

Everett Mills in Lawrence, MA, the former textile mill that's now home to 99Degrees. Photo by Wade Roush.

  • The tools for designing and prototyping new products, from advanced CAD software to 3D printers, are now within the reach of non-experts.
  • More people have access to the design and production tools mentioned above and are learning how to use them, thanks to the rebirth of the old-fashioned workshop in the form of the modern “maker space.”
  • Manufacturers are figuring out to take designs from makers and create smaller batches of products economically, allowing greater customization and faster turnaround.
  • And in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and Occupy Wall Street, scholars and policy analysts are paying more attention to the causes of economic inequality, and studying how ideas from advanced manufacturing can be used to create and preserve jobs rather than destroying them.

All of that, put together, means the factories of the future might be in our basements and garages. In the era of “mass customization,” even a large factory might only have dozens of employees, not thousands—but if their customized and/or artisanal products can command premium prices, there might be enough of these specialized factories to make up the difference. And that might provide an economic ladder for skilled laborers who, 20 or 30 years ago, would have had assembly line jobs.

Bill Taylor in his basement workshop in Belmont, MA. Photo by Wade Roush

Bill Taylor in his basement workshop in Belmont, MA. Photo by Wade Roush

Those are all pretty abstract propositions, but in this episode I tried to make them very concrete. I visited TechShop, a maker space where craftspeople are using high-tech tools to come up with new products (see my full interview with TechShop CEO Dan Woods). I talked with a business strategist at the Xerox-owned Palo Alto Research Center, where programmers are inventing design software that can help those craftspeople get their ideas to market faster. I toured a startup in an old Massachusetts mill town where one young entrepreneur is creating a path to skilled high-tech employment for manual garment workers. And I met Bill Taylor, an 88-year-old mechanical genius in Belmont, MA, who has an elaborate workshop in his basement and decades of perspective on the changing manufacturing scene in the U.S.


See also

The Full Dan Woods Interview



Bill Taylor

Dan Woods, CEO, TechShop

Lawrence Lee, senior director of strategy, Palo Alto Research Center

Mark Hatch, former CEO, TechShop; general partner, Network Society Ventures

Brenna Nan Schneider, founder and CEO, 99Degrees



Industry on Parade, a syndicated television program produced for the National Association of Manufacturers. The section on Clary Multiplier Corporation comes from Can 3a at the Prelinger Archives.

Make Magazine, DIY projects for makers

Maker Faire, a “festival of invention” with flagship fairs in the Bay Area, Chicago, and New York

TechShop, a community providing access to instruction, tools, software, and space, with U.S. locations in Chandler, AZ; San Francisco, CA; San Jose, CA; Redwood City, CA; Detroit, MI; St. Louis, MO; Pittsburgh, PA; Austin, TX; and Arlington, VA.

Design and Digital Manufacturing, a focus area at the Palo Alto Research Center

Inclusive Innovation Challenge from the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. 99Degrees won the IIC 2016 grand prize in the “Humans + Machines” category.



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

All additional music by Lee Rosevere:

Curiosity from the album Music for Podcasts

Under Suspicion from the album Music for Podcasts 2

Penguins on Parade from the album Music for Podcasts 3

Making a Change from the album Music for Podcasts 3

And So Then from the album Music for Podcasts 3

Old Regrets from the album Music for Podcasts 3

In a Moment from the album Music for Podcasts 2


Special Thanks

Mark Pelofsky gave me valuable editing notes on this episode. Alice Flaherty introduced me to Bill Taylor. Michael Fitzgerald helped me think through some of the story angles around 99 Degrees. I am privileged to be engaged in a longstanding, recurring conversation with Victor McElheny about American manufacturing, the future of work, and many other technology-and-culture subjects. On inequality and the future of work, coverage by David Rotman at MIT Technology Review has been a great inspiration and guide. Much wonderful interview material from Kathy Giori and Paul Spinrad ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but will appear in future episodes.


Our Sponsor

Soonish is supported by Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com

1.03: Can Technology Save Museums?

Touch wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo by Erik Drost.

Touch wall at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo by Erik Drost.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, adult participation in the arts is in steep decline. In 2002, 39 percent of all American adults visited a museum, went to a concert, or participated in some other in-person cultural event at least once. In 2012—the most recent year for which the NEA has data—only 33 percent did the same.

If the drop in participation were to continue at the same rate—about 6 percentage points per decade—then by the 2060s, the nation's art museums would be devoid of visitors. Except maybe for senior citizens: people over 55 kept going to museums faithfully, the NEA found.

If you believe as I do that something magical happens when people (of any age) encounter art in person, then the NEA statistics are pretty scary. This episode of Soonish asks: Will the museums of the future be empty, or thriving? What can the nation's museums do to re-engage the public and make sure they have loyal audiences 10, 20, or 50 years from now? What role can technology play—and when should it stay out of the way?

We know that younger people are being channeled away from museums by the profusion of learning and entertainment options available on the Internet and their smartphones. And when it comes to art, the new options for learning about art without ever setting foot in a museum are, in fact, pretty stunning. Just consider the Google Cultural Institute, which offers access to high-resolution photographs of millions of artworks from scores of museums in over 40 countries.

A museum-goer inspects Warren and Lucia Prosperi's Museum Epiphany III at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Wade Roush.

A museum-goer inspects Warren and Lucia Prosperi's Museum Epiphany III at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by Wade Roush.

But if museums didn't exist, Google wouldn't have much to photograph. And beyond their role as storehouses (some would say mausoleums) for art, well-designed museums can be playgrounds for learning and growth. 

My own feeling is that there's something indispensable about the opportunity to encounter a work of art, live and in person, and soak up whatever meaning it may offer. That may be the only way to build a deep and lasting connection with art, something that started for me when I was 10 years old and my grandmother took me to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see an exhibition of Matisse cutouts. 

"That is the real value of going to a museum," as Tamar Avishai, creator and host of The Lonely Palette podcast, puts it in this episode. "There is nothing you can get at a museum now that you can't get online except standing in that aura." (After you've heard the show, listen to my full interview with Tamar.)

The stories in this episode—drawn from the experiences of curators, entrepreneurs, artists, and communicators in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston—show that technology can help draw people into art's aura. But it can't make them stay there, or guarantee that they'll have an epiphany. That probably depends on something more direct—the melding in the moment of artist, object, and viewer.

Speaking of epiphanies, here's a photo of Museum Epiphany III, the image referenced in the segment of the episode about Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. It was created in 2012 by the painter Warren Prosperi and his wife, the photographer Lucia Prosperi. I did a separate 7-minute feature for WBUR's ARTery about this painting, and I'm planning to revisit it in a future episode of Soonish.

Museum Epiphany III, 2012, by Warren and Lucia Prosperi, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Museum Epiphany III, 2012, by Warren and Lucia Prosperi, Boston Museum of Fine Arts


See Also

The Full Tamar Avishai Interview



Charlotte Cagan, former CEO, San Diego History Center

Curtis Wong, Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research, Redmond, WA

Tricia Robson, Director of Web and Digital Production, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Mark Paddon, CEO, Guidekick

Warren Prosperi, Prosperi Studio

Tamar Avishai, Host, The Lonely Palette



A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, National Endowment for the Arts Research Report #58, January 2015.

The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

A Passion for Art: Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse & Dr. Barnes, Corbis Publishing, 1995. New and used copies for Macintosh and Windows available at Amazon and eBay.

The Art of the Steal, a 2009 documentary by Don Argott about the Barnes Foundation's relocation from Merion, PA, to downtown Philadelphia

The MFA Plays an Artful Mind Game With Its Visitors—And They Love The 'Epiphany', WBUR, November 7, 2016

San Francisco, a 1955 CinemaScope film by Tulio Pellegrini at archive.org

Guidekick's mobile app for the de Young Museum (iOS)



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Like Starlight Through a Veil from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

Wildcat Blues by Sidney Bechet, archive.org

Sunray by from the album Chapter Three: Warm by Kai Engel

Yankee Doodle, Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, archive.org

Spring, Movement 1, Allegro, from the album The Four Seasons (Vivaldi) by John Harrison with the Wichita State University Chamber Players 

Realness from the album Better Way by Kai Engel

Even When We Fall from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl


Special Thanks

I got valuable editorial feedback and production advice on this episode from Mitch Hanley, John Davidow, and Mark Pelofsky. Thanks also to my hosts in Seattle and San Francisco: Luke Timmerman, Tracy Cutchlow, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, and Ellen Leanse. Cleveland Museum of Art photo by Erik Drost, used under a CC-by-2.0 license.


1.02: Monorails: Trains of Tomorrow?

The Seattle Center Monorail in its maintenance facility. Photo by Wade Roush.

The Seattle Center Monorail in its maintenance facility. Photo by Wade Roush.

[Special note 1: Download the RadioPublic app and check out this week's featured podcast playlist News from the Future, curated by me. More on the playlist project here.]

[Special note 2: Sad news. Hours after publishing today's episode, I learned that Kim Pedersen, the founder and longtime president of the Monorail Society and one of the key voices in the story, had passed away after a battle with cancer. I've updated the show with a short introduction dedicating the episode to his memory.]

Artists, filmmakers, and TV producers depicting “the city of the future” are bound by certain conventions. There are the obligatory tall, imposing buildings with wacky shapes. The more flying cars, hovercraft, or zeppelins, the better. And the most frequent element: an extensive network of monorails.*

How did monorails—a technology that goes back to the 1870s—become such ubiquitous tokens of the future? What are their actual advantages over other forms of mass transit? And why isn’t the US taking part in the new global boom in monorail construction?

This week, Soonish has a one-track mind. And if you follow our train of thought, we'll be careful not to go off the rails. (Okay, I'm out of one-liners.)

Seriously, though: When we’re thinking about the future of our physical environment, especially in cities, we have to think about transportation—how people get to work, to the grocery store, to the big game on Sunday. In the U.S., since the 1950s at least, the dominant transportation mix has consisted of surface streets and freeways for cars; bus routes, subway lines, and commuter rail for mass-transit travelers; and more recently, light rail intra-urban transit, plus designated bike lanes for those courageous enough to venture into traffic on two wheels.

There are only a couple of US cities—Seattle and Las Vegas—where a monorail line is a genuine part of the mix. And I’ve talked with a lot of transportation watchers and monorail enthusiasts who feel that’s a missed opportunity.

The obvious advantage of monorails is that, by definition, they run on a single track or “beamway” that can be elevated above the streetscape, allowing monorail trains to soar majestically over the traffic jams.

Monorails don’t require expensive underground tunnels, and they can carry more people per hour than trains with steel wheels. That’s because most monorails have rubber tires, giving them the traction they need to accelerate and brake quickly. That, in turn, means you don’t need to leave as much space between trains.

Monorails may involve more up-front capital costs than light rail systems and other mass transit options, but proponents argue that they’re cheaper to maintain and operate, and therefore more economical in the long run. That’s part of the reason transportation authorities are building new monorail systems everywhere from Chongqing and Shanghai in China to Panama City, Kuala Lumpur, Riyadh, and Sao Paulo.

The Walt Disney World Monorail System. Photo by Chris Raimondo, from archive.org Community Media

The Walt Disney World Monorail System. Photo by Chris Raimondo, from archive.org Community Media

But here in the U.S., where facts don’t seem to matter as much, monorails suffer from an image problem. Marge Simpson is partially responsible for that. And monorails may also be burdened by their roles as attractions at world’s fairs and theme parks, especially Disneyland and Walt Disney World. When so many citizens see monorails fulfilling a purely decorative or ceremonial function at theme parks, it’s hard to get them to take the technology seriously as a mass transit option.

“Over the last 30 years of watching this, many times the detractors will bring up, ‘Well, we don’t need Mickey Mouse transit,’” said Kim Pedersen, the founder and president of the Monorail Society. “They’ll degrade the idea right from the start because that’s something for Disney.”

You don’t have to be a monorail enthusiast—and I confess I’ve become one over the course of producing this story—to see that monorail technology has been unfairly railroaded into obscurity. If we want to make our cities more open, navigable, and sustainable, we may want to give monorails another ride. Listen to the whole episode to learn why.

*A partial list of films and TV shows incorporating monorails: The Time Machine, Fahrenheit 451, You Only Live Twice, Babylon 5, The Simpsons, Frasier, Star Trek Enterprise, The Incredibles, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Aeon Flux, Batman Begins, WALL-E, Caprica, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Lego Movie, Jurassic World, and The Man in the High Castle.


See Also

The Full Kim Pedersen Interview

The Full Thom Ditty Interview

A Trip to the Seattle World's Fair in "Century 21 Calling"


Guests and Interviewees

Kylen Sandstrom, monorail conductor, Seattle Center Monorail

Kim Pedersen, Founder and president, The Monorail Society

Einar Svensson, Alweg monorail engineer (retired); founder, Urbanaut

Thom Ditty, general manager, Seattle Center Monorail

Dick Falkenbury, tour operator and author, Seattle


Monorails: Trains of the Future—Now Arriving, by Kim Pedersen

Rise Above It All, by Dick Falkenbury

The Monorail Society website

Grassroots, a comedy film based on the true story of the Seattle monorail project

Why Monorails Are the Future (Really This Time), by Adam Minter, Bloomberg View, December 6, 2016



Ad music: Why from the album Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Night Light from the album Nursery by Blue Dot Sessions

Brass Buttons from the album Nursery by Blue Dot Sessions

The Simpsons Main Title Theme by Danny Elfman from The Simpsons FOX TV series

When You Wish Upon A Star from the Disneyland ABC TV series, 1954-1959

The Jetsons Main Title Theme by Hoyt Curtin from the The Jetsons ABC TV series, 1962-1963

Bitter Roll from the album Crab Shack by Blue Dot Sessions

Starry Story from the album 30s30d: A Month’s Worth of Composing by Grant Fikes aka mathgrant

Rule Britannia by Thomas Arne, from a 1914 Edison Records phonograph cylinder, archive.org


Special Thanks

Mitch Hanley was a consulting editor on this episode and John Barth provided valuable notes. Graham Ramsay, Alice Flaherty, Andy Hrycyna, Lucia Prosperi, Warren Prosperi, Jamie Roush, Patricia Roush, Paul Roush, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, Wendy Perrotta, and Ellen Leanse listened to early drafts of this episode and also provided feedback and suggestions. My reporting trip to Seattle was made possible by my generous hosts, Luke Timmerman and Tracy Cutchlow.  

1.01: How "2001" Got the Future So Wrong

The inaugural episode of Soonish is about one of the boldest visions of the future ever put down on film: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The movie came out in 1968, and it offered an incredibly detailed and inspiring forecast for life the early 21st century. It showed a giant rotating space station and a whole city on the moon. It featured astronauts traveling to Jupiter, and one of the main characters was a thinking computer named HAL.

By putting the year in the title, Kubrick tied this forecast to a very specific date. But by the time the actual year 2001 rolled around, very few of his predictions had come true.

How did that happen? Kubrick was famous for his obsessive realism. His collaborator on the script was the science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke, who introduced the idea of the geostationary satellite nearly 20 years before aerospace engineers built the real thing. So these were two very smart guys—and nobody has ever tried harder to make the future look real on film. But as a piece of forecasting, the movie was way off target.

This episode asks how the future we actually got turned out to be so different from the future portrayed in the movie—and what that means for our future. 

Soonish is not a show about science fiction. It’s about how the choices we're making about real technologies today could help us or hurt us tomorrow.

But I wanted to make 2001 the centerpiece of the pilot episode because I think there’s a lot of meaning embedded in our portrayals of the future, whether they take the form of movies, books, world’s fairs, theme parks, advertising, comics, or cartoons.

That's a theme I've been mulling for almost 30 years, ever since I wrote my college honors thesis about the 1939 and 1964 New York World's Fairs and EPCOT Center. 

What I've learned is that depictions of the future are mostly about what we’re hoping for and what we’re worrying about now, in the present—and, just as important, what we believe is possible.


See Also

Full Interview with Jamais Cascio

Full Interview with Jason Pontin


Guests and Interviewees

Jason Pontin, CEO, editor-in-chief, and publisher, MIT Technology Review

Curtis Wong, principal researcher, Microsoft Research

Jamais Cascio, foresight thinker; distinguished fellow, Institute for the Future

Piers Bizony, science journalist and author

Lawrence Lee, senior director of strategy, Palo Alto Research Center



2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Penguin Group, reissued 2000

The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by Piers Bizony, Taschen, 2015

OpenTheFuture.com, the website of Jamais Cascio

Can Technology Solve Our Big Problems?, a 2013 TED talk by Jason Pontin

Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems, a companion article by Jason Pontin in MIT Technology Review, 2012

Solve, MIT's community convening "extraordinary people" to "examine and address challenges where where technology, business innovation, and smart policy can be combined to bring about real and lasting solutions" 

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War, Robert Gordon, Princeton University Press, 2016



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, from 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album, MGM Records, 1968

Somnolence from the album ICD-10 by Kai Engel

The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, from 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album, MGM Records, 1968

Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio) by Aram Khachaturian from 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack album, MGM Records, 1968

Snowmen from the album Chapter One/Cold by Kai Engel

There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, Richard and Robert Sherman, 1964

Ragtime Dance by Scott Joplin, 1902 (from archive.org piano rolls)

Subdivision of the Masses from the album Sound-trax by Philipp Weigl

Brooks from the album Chapter Two/Mild by Kai Engel


Special Thanks

Thank you to everyone who helped to get Soonish launched, including Graham Gordon Ramsay, Ibby Caputo, Cynthia Graber, Mitch Hanley, John Barth, Celia Ramsay, Kent Rasmussen, Ellen Leanse, Luke Timmerman, Tracy Cutchlow, Wing Ngan of Ink Design, Jessica Abel, my family in Alaska and Michigan, and the folks at the PRX Podcast Garage and the Sonic Soiree.


A Note on Pronunciation

I generated the text-to-speech voice in this episode using Amazon Polly. Because I was employing the voice to quote from a book by a British author, Piers Bizony, I selected the UK English voice that Amazon calls Brian.

You'll notice in the episode that Brian uses the British pronunciation of the word "prescient" -- which, phonetically, gets extended to three syllables and is something like PRESS-see-ent. In my narration I revert to the two-syllable US pronunciation, which is PRESH-ent.

I've been corrected for using either pronunciation. But I'm here to tell you that both are correct—just on different sides of the pond. I've also heard people split the difference and say "PRESH-ee-ent," which I can live with.