Plain English with Derek Thompson - The Biggest Inventions of the 2020s Cancer Vaccines, Flying Cars, Space Travel, and More


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Hello and welcome back to plain English.


In a good year January is can be kind of rough.

You are a little tired.

You’re not fully motivated to get back to work.

Wherever that is.

Your post-holiday body.

Mass is 20% cake, ice cream and apple Brandy cocktails.

Oh, no.

Wait, that’s just me, but it is.

Especially rough in 2022 with Omicron.


I did a pod with Bill Simmons last week about Omicron.

I’m not going to recapitulate the whole thing here.

We will have an autocrat episode next week.

The upshot for now is that, yes, it’s milder especially for the vaccinated.

And boosted, so get your vaccines and booster shots.

That’s the good news.

It’s also everywhere absolutely everywhere, which is not good news.


So many people are infected.

That schools are cancelled Hospital staff is strung Out, Sports are a mess.

The NBA is basically, handing out 10-day contracts to anybody who’s played 2K on PlayStation.

The last decade.

The point is things are total cluster shed.

And this is going to be even if you are optimistic about the trajectory of this virus in the next month, which I am.


Is this going to be a very, very rough month.

So, I thought for the first episode of 2022, let’s sag that sagging a bit.

Plain English has mostly been a news podcast analyzing what just happened.

What about inverting?

The telescope and taking the Long View?


What about a pod about the most interesting, and most exciting and most important Tech and science breakthroughs of the 2020s.

So, looking back a little bit over the last few decades.

We are coming out of a long period, that is, sometimes called the Great.


There’s a there’s a couple measures of productivity growth that are down a couple measures of technological growth that are down.

For some reason.

We don’t seem to be making progress toward human welfare as fast as we used to be, but I think the great stagnation might be over.


I think we could be on the cusp of a roaring 20s from Transportation Tech to biotech to energy Tech to nanotech.

I think the next 10 years could be one of the most exciting decades for scientific.

Every ever.

So I want to do a podcast on all the coolest stuff that is coming down.


The pike with someone who has the most masterful, understanding of that whole Frontier and that man is Eli Dorado.

He is an economist a writer and a researcher and his command of our Science and Tech.

Frontier is just beyond compare.

He is for the purposes of this episode, our guide to the universe of the future.


Now, this episode is a beast.

There is a lot of technical Detail that I will do my best to make plain, but I think it’s also a feast.

If you dream of jetting to Europe or Singapore for dinner, at twice, the speed of sound, lucky for you.


We discussed the future of SuperSonic travel.

If you dream of interstellar, human civilization, lucky for you.

We discussed the future of space Innovation.

If you dream more Earthbound dreams of using mRNA technology, the tech in our covid, vaccines to cure certain kinds of cancer.


We discussed the future of cancer, vaccines.

You believe is I do.

That may be the most important technology on this planet.

Is our ability to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and reverse climate change.


We discussed the frontier of carbon removal technology, which could at scale basically that cume the skies for carbon.

If you can’t tell, I am an optimist at heart about technology.

I think a lot of tech is screwed us over because technology is people And a lot of people are bad, but I also think technology is our ticket to abundance, abundance of clean energy, abundance of health, and abundance of wealth, and with some determination.


And some luck.

I think the projects we discuss in this episode, have a chance of moving us from science, fiction to science fact, from a world of scarcity, to a better world of abundance.

I’m Derrick Thompson.


This is plain English.



Welcome to the podcast.

A great to be on Derek.

Happy to see you.

Great to see you, too.

So I brought you on to talk about all the coolest stuff.

We’re inventing in science and technology.

But before we Feast on that, Buffet of invention, I wanted to set the table a bit.

We are in an era or maybe just coming out of an era that some people call the Great.


Nation a period where by some measures progress has slowed down Eli.

What is the great stagnation?

And how do we know we’re in it yesterday.

So as you said, the great stagnation is this period where it seems that output is not growing as fast.


So so economists usually think about output in terms of GDP, in terms of like what the economy produces, you know, the inputs to that are you can think of them as labor capital and everything else?

Else, right?

And so, so we know we can produce more output.


If we all work longer hours, if we apply more labor, right?

We know that we can produce more output.

If we don’t consume as much, we save more, we apply more Capital to production, right?

Those are kind of ways that are not, not fun ways of producing more output, right?

They like we work harder.

We don’t get to consume as much.


Those aren’t good.

Sometimes sometimes they’re necessary.

But but but they’re not the pure joy of, you know, more output.

The better way to increase output is by leveraging, the everything else Factor, right?


And the everything else factor is what’s called total Factor productivity.

You know, how do we combine labor and capital?

What are the different ways that we as a society combined labor and capital to produce output.


And so if you look at just sort of this this residual term total Factor productivity and and it’s Trend across time.


You see a sharp slowdown starting in the early 1970s a little Pick up in the mid-90s for sort of a brief decade-long sort of spasm of 2% growth again.

And then since about 2005, it’s really just falling off a cliff and we’re growing, you know, total Factor productivity at about 0.3 percent per year.


So sort of making it sort of like a kind of a zero-sum economy in a way, right?

Rounding down to 0.

Anyway, right?

So, total Factor productivity tfp, is basically a measure for efficiency, like in 1800, if you spent Hours out in the field.


So you might produce, you know, ten ears of corn.

But today, if you spend 100 hours out in the fields with tractors, and all this equipment that we have, you might produce 1,000 years of corn.

What’s the difference?

It’s not how much you work.

Its efficiency technology knowledge.

And the way we measure that growth of tech and knowledge is T FP.


And what you’re saying is that for most of the last 200 years tfp has just gone up and up and up, but in the last generation or so, economists have seen that, it’s slowing down.

In a really visible way, that is our progress problem in a nutshell.


But if the great stagnation is real, if progress and growth are slowing down today, why is it happening?

And this gives me a great excuse to share my favorite period of American History, which is the last 25 years of the 1800s.

A period of, you know, tfp was going up up up like crazy.


It seemed like we invented everything all at once.

I mean last 25 years, the 1800s.

All the following things were invented the Edison light bulb. cars sneakers, aspirin skyscrapers bicycles, the cardboard box, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Corn Flakes, the American hamburger, the Kodak camera recorded music, the first machine for capturing Motion Pictures basketball and volleyball like the late 19th century, was an invention Bonanza and there are some economists like Robert Gordon at Northwestern who are very famous for saying look if it seems like we’re in a great stagnation now, that’s because we picked all this low hanging Hanging fruit in the late 19th century.


You can’t reinvent the cardboard box.

You can’t.

We invent the light bulb.

We solved all these easy problems.

And now we’re stuck with all these hard problems.

So he like how do you feel about this explanation for the great stagnation?

The, we picked all the low-hanging fruit explanation.


Like so I think of this as Robert Gordon is a great historian and he’s not a great futurist, right?

So so he’s so I totally buy the idea of Like there was a great flourishing as you as you say, the late 1900s, it’s sort of picked up.


And, and, and actually really hit the economy in about 1920 and sort of lasted about 50 years.

I totally buy like that part of Gordon story.

Like the question is like, is it really that we don’t have any more inventions to be had right now, or is it something about us?


That is causing us to slow down, right?

And so I’m much more convinced by by Tyler Cowen.

Argument in the complacent class that there is.

This is the this is the George Mason economists.

Tyler Cowen, very famous, economist and writer and he was also a believe your PhD.


Yes. - my he was my PhD advisor.


And so so.

So his argument is that there’s it’s actually something about us, write it, something about our society that has changed, you know, so beginning in the 1970s and maybe compounding since 1970s that has made it harder to to do stuff to actually make progress in the real world.



And I think that that makes sense.

Also, I mean, if you think about the one area where we have had progress, It’s Computing by far, right?

And Computing, like is a great tool for making progress in a whole bunch of other areas.

So like even if even if the problems themselves are getting harder, like we have better tools than ever before.


So we should be making progress like exponentially faster because our Computing tools are so much better.

So, so I don’t, I don’t.

And then if you if if you sir Very sort of the landscape of possible inventions coming in the future.

Like that’s that to me is like the Clincher, right there actually, is a lot of stuff that is on the horizon that we could get to.


And that’s what sort of excites me and motivates me to figure out.

How do we, how do we end this stagnation period?


I’m sure there’s some people listen to this podcast who are like, wait.

What are you talking about?

Great stagnation.

I am listening to essentially mobile radio on a device that smartphone that was basically invented.


At least, is this sort of class of product in 2007, with the iPhone.

I’m doing it with internet which didn’t really exist, 30 years ago walking around with my pocket, full of apps, which didn’t exist, maybe five or ten years ago.

What are you talking about?

Decline of progress this to a certain extent.


I think what you’re talking about even as we have been sensationally successful and innovating in B, innovating and Communications technology.

We have not been nearly as successful.

We’ve been actually falling Backward when it comes with innovating in Adams innovating in the physical world, you look at the early 20th century.


We built the Empire State Building in 410 days.

It took two thousand five hundred days to build the New Freedom Tower.

You look at Subways.

We built the first.

Twenty Eight Stations of the New York subway in less than five years at the end of the 1800s.


In the 21st century.

It took almost 20 years to build three stations along the Second Avenue subway, so it’s not just that we’re getting worse and Building new physical world inventions.

We’re getting worse, at building using old technology, like metal.


And dirt just quickly before we before we, you know, show off the full Buffet of incredible exciting stuff that you think is coming forward.

Just maybe just put a pin in this explain to me.

Why you think this is happening?

Why you think physical world Innovation?


Seems to have slowed down so much.

You know, I don’t think, I think it’s cultural.

I think it’s overdetermined.

Like there’s more than one reason that sufficient tank to make it happen.

It’s just this Confluence of changes in material wealth.


So we’re so we’re just so comfortable.

Now that we’re not like, hustling enough.

We have different priorities.

We’re not trying to drive material progress forward.

I think that there’s a there’s there’s nimbyism there’s They’re sort of like, what I call the like the ugly parts of the environmental movement.


Although I support, you know, clean stuff.

I think that they’re, you know, there’s I think there’s also like this era of like mass media has sort of like poured and with the internet especially like pouring gasoline on the fire of the culture War, right?


So so we like we we no longer we no longer sort of fight for status among like our local neighborhood and then like that’s kind of like, Small culture war, and then like we for the, for the rest of our efforts, like we pour them all into material progress, right, instead.


It’s like this, this National or even Global status war that we’re sort of like absorbed in and, and not really thinking very much about cultural progress, our economic progress.


I, my summary of this Viewpoint is that this is an age of venting rather than inventing that we have taken a lot of our mental energy.


G, which is scarce and we have funneled it into screens where we spent a lot of time venting and pointing out all the things that are wrong with the world.

And we don’t spend enough of our scarce and finite mental energy, thinking about how to build in the physical world and solve physical world problems.


So let’s use that venting versus inventing inflection point and move into the inventing stage of this interview and talk about some of the glimmers of Hope and excitement that you see on the horizon.

So one summary of the Great Is from the famous, entrepreneur, investor, Peter teal.

Who said we were promised flying cars, but all we got is 140 characters.


So, starting right there with flying.

We used to have a plane that could travel around twice the speed of sound more than 1,000 miles per hour.

It was called the Concorde.

Now, we don’t have the Concorde but when it comes to airplane speeds in a way, what we’re seeing is like worse than stagnation is like, we’re moving backward.


All right.

So what happened to the Concord and why are you so interested?

In the next generation of SuperSonic travel.


So this is an area that’s near and dear to my heart.

So, what happened with the Concord is that the market never got big enough for it to operate sustainably and profitably.


So only 14 concordes Ever Saw Service.

They were, you know, as a aircraft program, that was not really designed for economic reasons.

It was designed for sort of national greatness reasons.

I was actually forged from a treaty that was signed between The French and the British.


And and with only 14 airliners in service, right?

That means maintenance costs are high because like spare parts, can’t be mass-produced.


It means that you, that means that you have to charge High ticket prices.

And so what that that what ended up happening for Concord is that it would fly half empty a lot of the time and it would be like, you know in today’s dollars something like 15,000 dollars round trip across across the Atlantic and It was and it was just the market just wasn’t big enough.


The terms of people who would pay that money.

And I think the other part of the story is, you know, the technology is just weren’t quite there.

It was quite literally, like ahead of its time.

It was totally had its time.

So we had the Concorde in the second half of the 20th century.

It was cool.

It was very expensive.

It was totally impractical.


It was, I think you’ve made this point another podcast made of aluminum, which gets a little soggy when it travels, at high speed.

So the plane literally stretched and contracted over the First of the journey, like you were flying across the Atlantic and a little accordion, but now we have a new dawn for supersonic travel.


There are a lot of companies working on airplanes, that can go several times faster than the speed of sound.

You worked at.

One of these companies called, boom, tell me what boom is up to.

Okay, so so so boom is flying a prototype airplane this year.


So no matter of months.

They’re flying their demonstrator aircraft.

So that think, you know, being kind of a low Mach airplane, but but, but still very exciting.

So that’s very exciting progress.

And I think they’re going to be entering service with a mock 1.7.



The plan is by 2029.

So that’s so that’s, that’s what they’re going for.

There’s a company.

So that is, that is what that’s like 1,200 1,300 miles per hour. 1.7 is a little less than that, but still okay, like, 1,000 miles an hour, maybe faster.


Yeah, something.

And how and how fast is the typical sort of, you know, 777.

It’ll fly around 550.

Is there smoke a cruiser speed?

So, almost twice as fast as the typical 777 about about about about twice as fast food, maybe maybe a little less and and so there’s a company called / - that is developing on mach-5 airliner.


And so they are basically, you know, that that’s the point at which You called Hypersonic.

So there’s a lot of Defense interest in that capability.

And so they’re really pursuing it as sort of like a dual-use technology.

The military can use the sort of, you know, Hypersonic engines for for various drug programs and stuff and then and then they can also translate that to an airliner.


And so that would get you, you know, across the Atlantic in like 90 minutes.

So York to London in 90 minutes.

That’s unbelievable.

You said Mach 5 Mach 5. 3,800 miles per hour.

That that is so fast.


It makes me a little bit afraid that is six times faster than a 777 typically flies at top speed.

But it, but it’s out.

There you mentioned.

The startup that’s working on a Mach 5.

Airliner Boeing has announced an aircraft concept, just a concept, but they’ve announced it that would travel also at Mach 5.


I mean, this is a speed at which you would cross the Pacific and in a matter of hours to 3 hours be like, what?

Is the limit here.

How fast can we go?

Yeah, I think there are limits to if you’re trying to build like truly a plane, the way, the planes operate today, like, out of You know, out of normal.


Airports say with the runways and all that stuff.

There’s kind of a limit an economic limit because you have to spend enough time at the sort of subsonic.

In the subsonic regime like near the airport, right?

You have to, there’s only so much gain you get from going a little bit faster, right?


So so Mach 5 is kind of the limit.

If you’re if you’re limiting yourself to like the plane model, right?

If you’re if you’re if you are willing to do like more of a rocket launch model, right?

Then we’re going to get there.

We’re going to get, then you can launch model.

Yeah, but before we move on to two rockets and space, you know, Ian in keeping with the Peter teal’c.


I would do want to make sure that I ask you about flying cars.

What is the outlook for flying cars in the 2020?

I mean, it’s this is this going to be like the Dippin Dots of Transportation.

Like it’s always the ice cream of the future.

It’s never the estimate the president or can we can see the lessee flying cars become a part of the urban or Suburban landscape in the next decade or two.



So I think there’s a ton of money money going into the space.

So I think something will come out of it, but it might not be like the flying car.

The way people think you had it, right?

The original vision of like, the Uber Elevate, white paper was something like, you could take across town through the air.

That would help you to avoid traffic.


And I don’t, I think we’re still like a long way away from that.

So it’s probably not a replacement for like, your daily car ride, but I think these vehicles, they’re coming.

They’re electric vertical takeoff, and Landing aircraft and and you should really think about them as like a new kind of regional aircraft.


So think about a trip that is like 200 miles like tasty like three or four hours to drive it.

So II live in the DC area, Every summer, I go up to the Jersey Shore for a couple times with my family.


What if instead of like packing for people into a car and driving for four hours?

You could summon one of these personal aircraft to take you, like, very close to your destination.


So maybe they know it.

Takes you like an hour to get there, right?

In the view is stunning, right?

Because you’re flying, which is always great and you can relax because there’s no stop and go and no traffic and there’s no rest stops along the way.

So it’s just like a better experience it.

So it’s, I think it’s, I think of it as like, you know, bringing the experience of A private jet to like many more people.


As long as your range is only a few hundred miles.

I was going to say it sounds like to the extent.

We’re going to get Fine Cars the next decade.

It’s not going to be something that really competes with the job of an urban or even Suburban car.

It sounds like it’s going to compete a little bit more with helicopter or private jet.


That’s interesting.

So a couple years ago, 2019, 2018, Uber Boeing UPS, all these companies announce these plans to develop Fine Cars and I wrote an article.

Out these plans and talk to some experts about them and they said there are at least three fundamental flaws.


With most flying car plans.

Number one, people aren’t good drivers on Earth.

So, why would we trust them in the sky?

Cities aren’t going to be pumped about ordinary citizens.

Flying thousand-pound machines around tall buildings filled with people.

Number two, the alternative which is to have robots Drive.


The flying car is also hard.

We can’t solve autonomy here on Earth.

How are we going to solve it in the sky faster than we solve it on the road.

And then third there still are some tech.

Issues with making these machines viable and affordable.

So he like, what do you see as the biggest remaining challenges to making flying cars?


A reality?


I think the economics are still pretty tough from, you know, like 41, like autonomy is really hard from a regulatory perspective.

It’s actually easier and planes than it is in cars.

But to really make it work to really make the economics of this work, you know, you kind of need to get the pilot out of out of the aircraft and And not have to pay for that and there’s a lot of opposition to that.


And, and a lot of challenges, you know, batteries is another thing like, how do we get the battery efficiency?

And they specifically like that, this specific energy, right?

That the amount of energy per weight, right?

Like as like such a huge role.


And then I think the third challenge is like all the operating support that you need for, for flying these vehicles.

Like you need a bunch of new infrastructure.

If you want this to be like in your city and taking you around your city, you need you need like Landing pads.

Charging stations maintenance capabilities, essentially many airports.


And then you think unlike today’s airports which are all built out in the boonies.

You know, you’ve got to put them in exactly, 10 10, but you gotta pay as well.

It’s like a helicopter.

Yeah, so, and so, with nimbyism being what it is, like that could be really tough, right?

So, so, I think there’s a lot of challenges to making it work as like, your daily car, but I think like, it would be shocking to me if like, with all the money going in, if we didn’t get like, really great Regional aircraft.


Coming out of this.

So moving from zooming around the world is your thing around space.

Let’s talk about space X and the new space race.


I want you to make the argument for space because I feel like I have a lot of clothes, smart friends who just do not care about space and are rather militantly anti space Innovation.


And so I want to sort of adopt the position of anti space dude here and and and put their argument to you.


Poverty, hunger, climate change.

We have so many problems right here on Earth.


Why are we?

And why?

Especially are the world’s richest people spending one millisecond of their time and attention worrying about space.

Yeah, so I don’t think that space, like the resources going into space.

First of all, other tiny, right?


Like, and the grin in the Grand Prix circuit like NASA’s budget is like He billion a year or just like a rounding error for, for the US federal budget, right?

So it is, it is minuscule, the amount of resource.

And then the other, the other point I would make is this is a RND heavy sector, right?


And like so much has come out, you know, NASA has this whole like webpage, you can go like, spin-offs that or something like that.

I think something like that is the URL.

And all of the technologies that came out of the The, you know, the Apollo program and and and, and Beyond.


So a lot of R&D gets done that provides value and then space itself provides value, right?

So, so, think about what is the economic value today of GPS, right?

It’s like, massive, right is like, it’s probably exceeds like the entire value of like what we’ve put into into space.


So the ability to do positioning anywhere on the planet like Communications is like a multi-trillion dollar industry.

And and, and, and satellites, you know, play a key role in, in Communications.

You know, I think, I think, in the long run, like I just think like they’re being a font.


Here is important for Humanity.

So like, you know, complaining about complacency, right?

Like the lack of a frontier, I think is potentially ingredient, and complacency, right?

And so having, you know, having some having a human Colony on Mars where they’re not going to be complacent.


Are going to be struggling to survive like that’s actually good for for the amount of invention that we can do.

Yeah, that’s a very good start.

I think of space is one of the great Bank shots in human Innovation history.

Like, if you don’t care about Mars, you don’t care about the moon, you’re bored by Hubble’s pictures of stars.


Just look at the NASA spin-off publication List.

Look at what we accidentally invented on our way to space.

Yes, it’s PR.

This is a little bit prf.

Exaggerating the degree to which the responsible for inventing this stuff, but they clearly pushed a lot of it Forward.



This is a list of includes Lasik.

Technology Cochlear implants, artificial limbs 3D food printing, aircraft anti-icing systems, temper foam for your mattress.

Enriched baby food.

Like you are sleeping on Space technology.


You are eating space technology.

You are feeding space technology to your baby.

You were having space technology pushed inside of your face.

If your eyes and ears can’t do the thing that they’re supposed to do.

The amount of work that has to be overcome to get a human being into space is so large that we can’t help but learning a ton of stuff along the way.


Another argument this goes with what SpaceX is doing, is we derived a lot of benefit from space in terms of starlink, the satellite program that Elon Musk has which beams down internet that we can get from from space.

If we build space, manufacturing would be absolutely fantastic.

We can make a lot of stuff that we can’t necessarily produce in in.


High Gravity environments on Earth.

Anyway, I could go on.

I think this stuff is very interesting.

Tell me he liked.

What do you think?

Elon Musk wants what is his Grand strategy?

So Elon is 100% focused on making Humanity, a multiplanetary species, you know, to basically to solve the problem of, you know, if there’s a disastrous catastrophic Comet strike or asteroid strike on Earth, you know, we don’t need Humanity.


The light of human.

She is not extinguished from the universe.

That we have a back-up plan on mars, or on, maybe on other bodies and we can sort of review reboot human civilization.

And, and it’s striking to me.

Like how much everything Elon does is in furtherance of that Vision.


I think like, insofar, as you can even think of Tesla as a bet on on Mars, right?

Like what will we need to have vehicles on Mars will probably electric drivetrains, right?

We’ll need solar panels, right?

Foreign company, right?

We’re going to need underground habitats, you know, like so I think almost everything Elon does is is really geared towards this vision of Mars colonization.


And what is the most important thing that SpaceX is building right now to achieve that Vision without a doubt.

It’s Starship, right?

That’s there.

It’s, they’re super heavy.

Lift rocket biggest rocket ever is rivaling.



Five, which launched the Apollo missions, they’re building it right now.

Or, you know, have been building prototypes in the tip and southern tip of Texas and they are ready to go to orbit as soon as FAA approves their environmental assessment.


So they’re just waiting waiting on a Neff a review and then they’re going to do the first orbital flight.

So this is a vehicle.

So Falcon 9 was already revolutionary for the for the launch industry.

Up cost by like a factor of four relative to like the other bike sort of medium lift American rock.


That’s right.


Like they’re targeting like another like two orders of magnitude in sort of cost reduction in terms of like price per kilogram to get cargo to orbit.

And and so it’s just so to go from like Forex cost reduction to like another hundred X Plus reduction.


It is just massive.

So, how are they doing it?

There there, instead of just the booster stage being reusable and Landing like they’re making the whole vehicle right?

Booster stage plus the vehicle itself is going to be reusable.

They’re using like dirt cheap materials.


They’re using stainless steel instead of like Advanced Aerospace Composites and stuff like that so that so they’re planning to turn these things out at like 5 million, a pop for the vehicle, right?

And just just to give us some comparison.

How cheap is that compared to a typical rocket?

Well like until the 1990s 2000s.


Well, the typical rocket, you know, would be like 150 million dollars and you fly it once and throw it in the ocean.

So this is 30 times cheaper like something like that.


I mean it’s a lot cheaper than, and why does chieftess matter like, when we’re trying to go to space?


I think this is actually really important part when it comes to space Innovation.

What’s Y is price, so important.

So the ultimate like know, the costs of like getting stuff to space.

It affects what you said, right?

So it affects it, affects.

How you engineer the payload.

That’s like I think the biggest point so one is directly like if you think just again about the gravity model of trade, it directly affects how much you send.


So you’re going to send more if it’s if it’s cheaper, but then also changes what you send because when it’s when you’re paying, you know, 100 million plus for a launch on sort of like the pre SpaceX Rockets.

You need to over-engineer your, your the thing.


Launching the satellite, the spacecraft, whatever it is, you need to over engineer it.

So that, you know, it’s not going to fail, right?

So you spend, whatever it takes to make sure it’s not going to fail.

You’re going to, you’re going to buy the most the fanciest Hardware.

You’re going to make hire Engineers to triple-check quadruple.


Check when people check the work, right?

When launch comes down by, you know, a couple orders of magnitude you buy your Hardware Home Depot, right?

And you assemble it, and then you You send it up and if it doesn’t work, you send another one right to build on that.


If we can bring down the cost of sending stuff up to space by a factor of 30, that means that all else.

Equal we can increase by a factor of 30, the amount of stuff that we sent into space to build cool.


Like it’s a force multiplier in our ability to build satellites and telescopes and space stations underground cities on Mars, reflector Shields and Venus like you name it when cost come down our potential to become a Is oriented civilization goes up?


So, okay, descending from space to Earth.

Let’s talk about biotech 2020. 2021 were clearly a coming-out party for mRNA messenger.

RNA technology.

If you got a vaccine shot from Pfizer Moderne, you got a shot of mRNA technology and mRNA is you see it has a big future beyond the coronavirus.



Tell me a little bit about why you’re so excited when it comes to mRNA Tech.


So mRNA is the language that the cell uses.

As instructions for making proteins, right?

So so now that we’ve figured that she quickly like what are proteins?


Because honestly like so like sometimes I think a lot of people and myself included before I had to sort of become a covid reporter thought proteins for like, you know, something you put in shakes and sometimes find in like, you know, ribeye and New York strip.

What what do proteins do?

Why are they important here?

So proteins, are not just a macronutrient, right?


They are, I don’t know, like, the one thing I remember from, like, 9th grade biology.

I don’t know if you had this experience, is that Amino acids are the building blocks of life.


Had to like, remember that, right?

And so, no, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, right?


And proteins are basically, what life is all about, right?

Like like so, so all of the processes that make you a living person, are carried out by proteins in contrast with like an inert.

Like steak that you’re eating because it’s protein, right?


Like these proteins are very dynamic.

They move around.

They have mechanisms and it’s All included in this.

So, it becomes like this, like messy, like 3D thing and the structure of the, of the protein determines its function.

And, and that structure is all just determined by the sequence.


It’s a linear chain of amino acids that all like, kind of folds up into this 3D structure.

It’s very complicated to predict what it will be but but that that is what a protein.

It’s, right.

So proteins, are these little microscopic machines that basically do everything in our bodies.



Now back to Jack mRNA synthetic.


MRNA what is this technology do?

And why is it important?

So, this is what the part of the cell called the ribosome and what the ribosome does, is it reads, mRNA, and spits out a protein that’s encoded for by the MRNA.

So it links together, the amino acids and that’s that’s, or protein.


And so what we figured out with these vaccines as we figured out how to deliver custom or mRNA to ourselves, right?

So that we can make the cell, make any protein, we want in the case of the vaccine.

We decided we wanted to make that the human cell produce a virus protein.


It’s actually a slightly modified from the vitis, virus protein.

So it’s actually a completely unique protein in a way.

And and and so we can make, we can make it make any protein we want.


And so, so I think of this mRNA technology has long been thought of as a way to potentially address cancer.


So we could train just like we trained the immune system to beat up on Coronavirus.

By proteins, we could train the immune system to beat up on markers of cancer.

So so if you, if you have a protein that’s expressed in a cancer cell, but not in a healthy cell, we could train your body to attack the cells that have the bad protein, right?


And so, so if we train your immune system to attack that, like your cancer could go away, right?

It would be vendors have Beyond Tech.

Yeah, they found is to be on Tech.

Who made what we now call.

That defies our vaccine, they said, you know, we think of our technology is essentially holding up a wanted poster to the immune system.



So we have a wanted poster of the coronavirus of the spike protein on the coronavirus.

We say, this is the bad guy and then we teach our immune system to recognize the criminal the wanted poster.

So that when he tries to walk into the saloon, our bodies, we beat them up at the doorway or something.


Yeah, and their point is, it’s not just coronavirus has, they can have their picture put on the wanted poster, we can put all sorts of stuff on that wanted poster.


We could put as you just said, cancer markers, on the wanted poster.

I interviewed the the founders of few months ago, and they said they have found in their early trials and this is definitely for which going to take them longer.


I think to develop cancer, vaccines that are really effective than it did for them to create a coronavirus vaccine for covid.

But they say essentially what we found is that if you have cancer and it is taken out from surgery, we can basically do a study on that cancer.

That looks to the proteins that are identified that that are The viable on that on that cancer and we can develop a personalized vaccine that we give to you.


That has that cancerous markers in the wanted poster such that when that cancer might start to grow back.

Aha, you are vaccinated against it.

You are beating up that cancer and it’s markers.


At the door of the saloon.

Is that does that more or less?


Jive with what you’ve understood to be the, the how the science works and sort of a metaphorical way?


Absolutely that that that’s exactly.


It’s exactly, right.

And I think also like the speed with which we were able to make these vaccines.

To bring it back to what we were talking about earlier.


Like that is evidence for the complacency Theory because like the pandemic was like we were the one thing we were not complacent about was we’re going to get these vaccines going.

We’re going to have operation warts, warp speed and so on.

And so when we try we can get progress going really fast and it’s a good point.



And a good call back to the theory that I think, you know, it’s I think a lot of these problems are hard.

I think, you know, curing cancer book cancer.

It’s not one thing.

Cancer is Like 3,000 different things, 30,000 different things.

So curing cancer is not one problem, like inventing a one light bulb that said, I think you’re totally right.


That there is a certain kind of focusing mechanism that a crisis can deliver to a society that forces them to do.

One thing the forces them to do a thing.

And clearly covid forced us to accelerate, mRNA technology, and all sorts of Technologies to inoculate against covid.


And we can, similarly, Focusing mechanism in the absence of a pandemic by just choosing to focus on things.

I think I’m with you there.

I want to move from mRNA technology to another part of the protein space, which is that in late 2020.


There was a huge breakthrough and Google’s AI project deepmind, which basically launched just several years into the future, in terms of our ability to design to look at what proteins actually look like.


Tell us a little bit about Google’s break through and walk us through how it might translate into medicine in the next 10 or 20 years.


So, this is a problem that was has been around.

Since the 1970s was actually brought up in a, in a Nobel Prize address in the 1970s was we know that proteins have a linear amino acid sequence.


And we know that there are 3D structures.

If we know, it’s pretty easy to determine what the, what the linear arrangement of amino acids is like, but Should we be able to predict based on that linear sequence?

You know what the 3D structure is and what the function therefore is, right?


And and and so that has actually, you know, in the 1970s when this was proposed.

It was thought, like, okay.

This isn’t going to be like that hard to do and it’s just, we tried and tried and tried and no matter the amount of compute that we threw at it.

It was, it was really hard and what what this alphabet lab called deepmind was able to do is they just They put a ton of machine learning into sort of the algorithm for figuring out how these things fold and they they basically solve the problem.


I mean like with came very very close anyway to like perfect solution.

How you solve the problem of predicting, the 3D structure of a protein based on its linear sequence.


So what does that mean?


Okay, so we have a, we have a machine learning algorithm owned by Google.


Can predict, essentially, the structure of every protein that exists?

So what what are we did at that?

So what it means.

I mean, so the simplest thing is what we can we can now Target drugs at those projects, right?


So actually like we have some think about a quarter of the sort of proteins that are relevant to humans have been sort of the shape has been determined experimental e, right?

And so, So being able to like knowing their shapes can help us like Target using using using drugs.


If you can figure out which drugs might be good targets for those to inhibit or activate those proteins, right?

So so that’s like one simple and like, sort of drugs and Drug Discovery, and, and pharmaceutical companies have their own databases of some of these, but they’re all like private, right?

And so like this would enable us to maybe like create like an open source database of like all of the proteins and what they’re saying.


Hey, can I try another metaphor?

And and you tell me how far you think?

Metaphor is from reality.

I’m sure it’s a certain distance from reality, but it won’t.

You tell me how far so like Understanding the shape of proteins in a way that is perfect.


And we’re not there yet, but understanding the shape of all proteins in a way.

That is perfect, is kind of like understanding what every lock looks like on the inside.

If we want to break into every house in the world, if we somehow had like x-ray vision into the shape of every single lock and we had a key master.


Okay, then we now have a Says to every single door and every single Vault and every single house in the world.

And if we understand the shape of proteins, and we understand how using synthetic mRNA, and other mRNA technology can be used to essentially lock with or lock onto or recreate these proteins.


It’s a little bit like we can break into all sorts of bodily functions.

So, if we recognize Is that there are proteins related to cancer.

We can begin to cure this cancers.

If you recognize that there are proteins related to schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s, we can develop biological keys to solve those problems.


That essentially this technology optimistically could be this, this kind of x-ray vision into all the biological locks that exists, like how completely nuts is that?

That’s not too far off, right?

I think the one thing is, Different.


Is that, like, we, I think, even if we could do this perfectly, like, we can at best, we can activate and inhibit any protein we want, right?

Which is, which is, which is huge.

We still don’t know how all the, how all the protein, the whole system interacts, right?


So it’s like a little bit more complicated.

It’s like, okay, if you open this lock, then another lock something else happens, right?

So that’s all.

There’s so many interdependencies and human body.

But but it is like a huge piece of it, right?

We’re going to, we’re going to, I think we’re going to discover a ton of Drugs and in the, in the next, you know, you later actually, I mean, I just, I just dreamed all of the all of the Harry Potter movies over my holiday break.


And I’m trying to imagine a room where every single time you open one door, five other doors close.

Like you’re right.

That’s more how the human body operates.

Like nothing is there’s very few important things that are just one protein or just one gene.

I must everything is a sort of complex dance between different proteins, different genetic Expressions.


I think that’s that’s that’s good and and thank you for reminding me of my Harry Potter binge.

I wanted to Move to what I think, is one of the most important technology is in the world and some people going to be like, well, you talk about a lot of important Technologies, but I honestly think this might be, is this is arguably the most important the next decade.


And its carbon capture the ability to build facilities, build plants, that act like super trees that do the work of a million of a 1 million tree Forest suck, carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and somehow story.


It talk to me a little bit about where you think we are with carbon capture technology and what it will take to scale it.

Yeah, so I think it’s an extremely promising technology.

I think it will work.

I think we’ve basically where we are right now is like we can reliably take carbon out of the atmosphere for like hundreds of dollars a ton.


You know, it’s sort of like small scales.

And basically what we need to do is get it down to a car cost like below at $50 a ton.

And at the gigaton scale or maybe even the 10 Giga ton scale, right?

So that’s like how you solve, you know, the last the really hard bits of decarbonization that were probably not going to be able to like directly solve like you need like ten gigaton scale, carbon capture to be able to do that.


And I think actually like carbon removal is maybe the better term, right?

Because because you don’t always need to like capture the CO2, so I think actually like To my mind, the most promising methods are either mineralisation or ocean acidification or dies.


Alton is alkalinization.

And those are your deathly going to have to unpack.

This is Nations has not exactly sure what they are.



So so those are the most promising ones and those are those are forms where you don’t actually capture the carbon but you remove carbon from the atmosphere, but you don’t you don’t actually hold onto the carbon atom.


So in carbon mineralization what you do is you A abundant Rock that’s already in the, in the Earth’s crust on the surface.

Usually sometimes in the mantle is actually where it is.


And so there’s only a few places where it’s like raised up to the surface.

So the most common one that’s talked about is called Olivine and it makes up 50% of the upper mantle.

So it’s like huge and abundant and you if you expose it to air and water.


It will capture the CO2 out of the out of the atmosphere, and it will take that carbon atom and fix it into a bicarbonate, ion, or a carbonate or bicarbonate, ion, right?

Which is a lower energy State than CO2.

So, once it gets there, it’s safe.


It’s not ever going back into the atmosphere, you know, for, for hundreds of millions of years and and it’s a super simple reaction.


Looks like, rock are water.

That’s it.

That’s all you need.

Now, there there’s some challenges around, like, a crust that builds up over the rocks.

But this process has been happening for, you know, billions of years.


Volcanoes, right emit.

Greenhouse gases, carbon carbon dioxide when they erupted in, if this process weren’t already at play at a small scale like Earth would have already turned into Venus.

So this is already happening.

We just need to like accelerate it and so this is called enhanced weathering if you accelerate the process.


And so so figuring out how to accelerate that process to me is a really promising.

Gangway for carbon dioxide removal and then the other way is just changing the acidity level of the ocean.


So if you could, if you could take acid out of the ocean, right, or or dump, a base into the ocean at a small scale, right?


Not not enough to kill anything.

If you could do that, that changes the the atmospheric to Ocean concentration, gradient of carbon dioxide, so Knocks that if you make it more, if you make the ocean more alkaline less acidic, like carbon dioxide will flow from the atmosphere to the ocean to the ocean.


And it will, you know, will get in there and it will become carbonic acid and it will sort of be in equilibrium again, so you can remove CO2 out of the atmosphere that way.

So, I can imagine some people listen to this.

They’re like, okay, taking ask that of the ocean.

Second carbon dioxide out of the sky.


This sounds a little this has rather futuristic.

It sounds rather science fiction a, how close are we to doing these things?

At any sort of meaningful scale?

I think it’s this is all still, like in the experimental phase.

But I think one thing that I like about these Technologies is that there’s no like technological barrier.


There’s nothing we have to really invent to make this work.

Like we like cheap energy helps a lot in terms of, you know, we might want to use some electrical process.

To separate the acid from the ocean water, right?

So, so, like getting electricity costs down, helps getting other energy costume for transporting this rock, right?


Like, like the that we might want to crush up and contact with water and air right?

Getting those energy costs down like that’s important getting you getting anything to scale.

It’s going to be super hard, but I don’t think that there’s any new technology that you need to do these things.


It’s just again, it’s like we just need to kind of To choose to do it, right?

Very last question.

We talked about God, flying cars, supersonic, planes, synthetic, mRNA machine learning protein, design carbon capture utilization.


What is the technology that I have?

Not asked you about that?

You are most excited about for the next 10 to 20 years.

The thing I’ve been looking into more and more is atomically precise.


So this is what was originally referred to as nanotechnology before the term got co-opted.


So if you think about all the advances that we’ve had in society from like increasing levels of precision and Manufacturing, they’ve been huge, right?

You couldn’t have had the steam engine without improvements in Precision.

What if we take that to like The Logical extreme, right?


What if we get ever more precise in the way you manufacture like what new things can we can we invent there?

So that’s like kind of what I’ve been.

Been noodling on for the last couple months.

Can you tell me one new thing that we might be able to invent with extreme sort of nanotechnology.


I think like super efficient engines.

Like what if we get with?

What if we could turn, you know, a fuel into useful work?

Like with like 90% efficiency instead of like 30% efficiency.



Seth Eli Dorado.

Thank you so so much.

I appreciate it.

Great to be with you.

Plain English with Derek, Thompson is produced by dead and manzi.

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Have a great weekend.

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