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Lisa: 00:00 We are really in this together, so thank you for being here. My guest today is Christine Peterson. Christine is the epitome of a generalist. A brilliant woman contributing to the world in many ways. She's the co-founder of Foresight Institute, the leading Nanotech public interest group through which she lectures and makes complex futurist oriented fields understandable. She brings her ability, her Super Powers of integrative and generalist awareness and understanding to raise awareness in the media and with policy makers and in the general public in particular in the areas of health-extension and nanotechnology, both of which we discussed. And one very cool fun fact about Christine is that she is credited with coining the term “Open Source Software”. So come on in; join me in my conversation with Christine Peterson.
Lisa: 00:00 Christine, welcome to my podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to join us here.
Christine: 01:29 Well, I'm thrilled to be here. I know we're going to have a blast.
Lisa: 01:32 I think by way of introduction, can you maybe just take us back to MIT?
Christine: 01:37 When I was in high school, I went to a summer program. I imagine some of your listeners may have done this too, between the junior and senior year. In my case it was to do a biology program at Purdue and I had a great time, learned a lot of biology, but I had a lot of trouble following the rules. I had not been brought up as a very rule following sort of kid and eventually they sent me home. So I realized that I needed a place where the students were independent and where they were treated like adults. I also noticed that in the classes I was doing the best that they were mostly boys in those classes. So I thought, wow, this is kind of cool… the ratios are excellent, so I decided I need a place where the students are treated as adults, they're independent and it wouldn't be a bad thing if the male to female ratio was pretty high.
Christine: 02:32 So when I got a package from MIT, I jumped at it and I said this is my place, and it was. It was excellent in those ways, I have to say, even though I arrived on campus at age 17, not even technically an adult, the students were respected, they were pretty independent and it worked well. Another aspect of that is that it was possible at that time and I believe still to design your own major. I didn't end up doing that, but I knew plenty of students who did. So yes, I think it was an excellent place for independent people at that time.
Lisa: 03:07 Great. Now I am thrilled to see the increasing balance, let's say between men and women in sciences, but I know when I was growing up that certainly was not the case. And you've already made reference to that. Did you always know from a young age that you would be involved in either technology or science?
Christine: 03:23 You know, I didn't have that vision. As a matter of fact, I was a big reader and while it's true that some of those novels were science fiction, many were not. So no, I would say from the beginning I felt more like a balanced person. I think the reason I was so attracted to science and technology in high school and then in college was because it felt to me like an individual's performance in those fields was more objectively determined. In other words, it could be accurately measured and reported. Whereas in the softer topics, it seemed more political. It had more to do with the teachers or the professors' personal view of you. Whereas in science and technology, if you ace the test, you get 100%. That's the end of it. I always also loved the softer side of things. Um, English history, all those topics. And I think as we talk more, you'll see how even though in high school and college I was focusing more on science and technology, those softer topics merged with science and technology to enable me to do what I do now.
Lisa: 04:30 For some reason I seem to be interviewing people who bridge seemingly disparate topic areas. And you certainly fit that model.
Christine: 04:37 Well, it doesn't surprise me that those are the types of people that you would be attracted to. I mean, you do those kinds of things and it's at those intersections where the highest leverage comes.
Lisa: 04:47 That's actually a perfect description. I love the idea of finding the intersections between various skill sets and various interests and yes, absolutely….the power that comes from that. On that note, it seems to me that you're someone who's very interested in making a difference…in having an impact on the world. So can you talk about your view of yourself as someone who contributes to the world?
Christine: 05:15 As a young person, say in high school and college, I didn't really know that one person could make a difference in the world. It didn't feel that way to me. I was around other young people who seemed to have figured that out, but it hadn't really hit me yet that I, as an individual, could possibly make a difference in the world that would be worth trying to make. It wasn't until I started getting involved with a group that was promoting space colonization. This was a big topic at the time among science and technology people. I saw it as an environmental cause, a way to protect the biosphere, so I got involved and eventually was invited to go down to Washington DC and do some lobbying and we, a bunch of young kids, hopped in our cars and carpooled down to DC and we were effective. We achieved our goal, so that experience made me realize, wow, a very small number of people working together can have a big impact.
Lisa: 06:16 Can you talk a little bit more about what your vision of Space Colonization was at that time or now?
Christine: 06:22 Sure. As you know, our species, and in fact the entire biosphere is concentrated on one fragile planet, and in the long-term, if you care about the human species, you realize we can't stay in this one place forever. It's a vulnerable place. Sooner or later, if we want the species to continue, we need to expand. We need to go off planet, into the space frontier. There's really no other option. And space, as far as we can tell, is pretty empty. There's just not that much out there. We haven't run into any aliens. If they're out there, they're hiding really well, so there's no reason not to expand out. So it's very much an environmental perspective and one of the phrases that was used back then that you'll still see today is “we want to lift the burden of industry off the planet”.
Lisa: 07:17 So can you just give me a little bit of an update on the current status and the future of space colonization?
Christine: 07:24 Things are looking better now than they have for a very long time. Primarily because of the private space industry. We've got people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who are taking their substantial fortunes and investing it into making space launches affordable. Hopefully your listeners have seen the stunning videos, really amazing videos of these rockets that they're building now that in the old days they went up and that was it. Now they come back down and lands. So, um, we're making excellent progress. We as a species toward getting these launches to be affordable and that's the first step. Then we want to build things on the moon or on Mars, or my personal preference is to build free standing space colonies. You don't necessarily want to live on the surface of a planet. You may want to live actually in space itself.
Lisa: 08:20 Wow. OK. So to me that sounds like so much future. So cool. So interesting. So exciting and kind of reminds me of some books I had when I was a kid, but I don't really have a very tangible idea of how that would, how that could look for me, either in my lifetime or my kid's lifetime. Can you paint a little bit more of a picture of what this kind of free standing situation might look like?
Christine: 08:42 I think in the near term, something that that you and I might have the opportunity to do pretty soon is space tourism. I mean you can see that coming already. There's a really stunning video out on internet showing a camera inside one of these rockets and they had a mannequin in this rocket and they showed the video. The rocket takes off. You see this mannequin, you see the view out these gigantic windows. I mean these are not the tiny little windows are used to seeing on these rockets. These are giant, beautiful windows and you see the spectacular view, this fantastic space. There's the mannequin just like a person would be right, and then it turns around and comes back down and lands very gently, very, very gently. So this can be done right now. That could have been a person. The person would've been perfectly fine.
Christine: 09:33 So here we are, 2018. How many years is it going to take before humans in that seat? I think very few. And then the next step we have to say, all right, what is it economically viable to do in space? Now that's not my area of expertise, but many people are looking at that. So for example, we all know that the big problem with solar power is there's nighttime and the solar panels don't work at night or when it's cloudy, you can put your solar panels up in space and then beam the power back down here to receivers on earth. So that's one economic reason to go up there, build a lot of stuff. Have people actually living up there.
Lisa: 10:15 So one of the queries I have when I hear you speak about this. If airplane travel is difficult on the environment, how would space travel had a net positive impact on the environment?
Christine: 10:26 Let's say you put solar panels in space instead of on the ground. One problem with putting solar panels on the ground is you're blocking the sunlight from the ground below it, which means whatever living things you had there are now not getting the sunlight they need. So there's always an environmental costs to doing just about any human action. There is some environmental cost and so you'll always have to ask, can we imagine a competing system that would have maybe all the benefits and fewer downsides or no downsides. These are hard computations as you can imagine. You have to look at all the pluses and minuses on both sides and then make a judgment call.
Lisa: 11:10 Great, so I get what you're saying. It's not a simple thing to do computation on benefit versus cost and that we're going to probably have to rethink the assumptions that we already hold about what the right thing to do is as things change…and that is basically evolution as we go through the future.
Christine: 11:27 It is. Any kind of environmental calculation is complicated as you said. So yeah. I still see this whole area of space colonization as ultimately a great goal and one that will have environmental payoffs. It's taking longer than we had hoped, but now finally there is a lot of activity in the private sector, so I think hopes are rising again that this is going to speed up.
Lisa: 11:53 Given your involvement in space colonization in the past and your current endeavors right now, which I know involved in nanotechnology, can you talk a little bit about the connection between the two? If there is one…
Christine: 12:03 There definitely is one. You need to build space transportation vehicles out of materials which are super strong and super lightweight. Now that's hard to do. You know, usually you get strength from, from adding mass, but when you're trying to launch things off the surface of the earth, you need to get the mass down as low as you possibly can and the way you do it is use the strongest but lightest weight materials that we can come up with. Then that leads you into looking at the question of nanotechnology, which is building with the most precise control possible down to positioning individual molecules precisely. So there's a direct connection between the goals that you're trying to achieve for space and the materials and devices that are possible with nanotechnology.
Lisa: 12:54 We know each other originally through the Longevity movement and I know that you're… you play a big role in and in fact are one of the co-founders of the Foresight Institute. How do you answer that question, “What do you do?”
Christine: 13:11 I'm the Co-Founder of Foresight Institute, which is a non-profit that works to maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides of coming technologies, which include nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and longevity science.
Lisa: 13:25 Does that mean then that you serve as the facilitator of a think tank?
Christine: 13:28 That's right. That's what I do and I've done it since 1986 when we were founded.
Lisa: 13:34 When you're talking about facilitating these kinds of conversations, you're primarily bringing together people who are experts in these fields and who are deep, deeply knowledgeable in these areas of science and future.
Christine: 13:44 We are, although we also include people who are early career, so they're still getting oriented. I would say that everyone at these workshops is an expert in some area or another.
Lisa: 13:55 OK, and then can you just tell me what the connection is between your past work in space and also nanotechnology and your interest in longevity, if there is one. Or is it just that you're broadly interested in longevity? In order to prolong human life and cure aging? Or is there a more direct connection?
Christine: 14:13 Obviously we're all interested in being healthier longer, but there is a direct connection because when you look at advanced nanotechnology, you're thinking about systems of molecular machines. You're thinking about the ability to control the positioning of atoms and molecules. That leads you immediately into medical applications. How would we use this in medicine, for example, repairing DNA, cleaning out the plaque from arteries, cleaning out the amyloid plaque from Alzheimer's. Then you start thinking, well, what physical health problem would you not be able to address if you had nanotechnology? And there isn't one.
Lisa: 14:54 So you're saying that the more the scientific community can advance nanotechnology, the more applications there are for curing age-related diseases.
Christine: 15:02 First we can start with the obvious ones I already mentioned and then we're probably going to be finding other problems. If we can get rid of cancer and heart disease and Alzheimer's, then what will people age from? So then you just keep tackling those until you have nailed the aging process itself.
Lisa: 15:20 So I want to take a slight segue here. I'm wondering if you have a sense of your particular Super Power or the thing that has driven you, or supported you in everything that you've done so far.
Christine: 15:31 I would have to say that…picture your typical scientist or technologist, he or she is wonderful in the laboratory, may be great on the theory of the science and technology of their own work, but they don't necessarily put a lot of time into getting good at reaching outside their discipline, reaching across to other disciplines and making connections that would speed up their work. It could be a connection to an adjacent field, for example, between chemistry and biology. It could be a connection with a potential funder of their work. It could be making sure that the public understands the work so that the public will support funding. They're not great at communication. They're not necessarily great at strategy outside their own little area, so these scientists and technologists really need the support of a generalist and that's where I come in. I work at at a pretty high level. I don't try and learn all the details of the science and technology. That's not my job. What I need to do is figure out what does this field need to move forward? Is that funding? Is there opposition? These kinds of questions. So, so that's where I come in. It's a communications strategy and outreach.
Lisa: 16:51 You started to do this already, but I'm wondering if you could say a little bit more about the steps you take. Is there a way of generalizing, a framework around how you use your skill set to attack the problem?
Christine: 17:07 Before anything else happens, one wants to try to identify which fields are going to be having the biggest impact in the future. What really matters? Where should I put my attention? For some people it might be the longevity world. Others might be more concerned about environmental issues. Uh, still, others might be more concerned about political issues. Certainly our political situation right now is not great. So we want to try to apply our skills in an area that we feel is fundamentally important, perhaps urgently important, and where we feel passionate because this work isn't easy and it isn't particularly well paid, always. So it has to be something that you're passionate about. Once you've identified that space, then you want to dig in and try to figure out what is holding back progress? Where are the barriers? Usually in science, technology, there are funding issues that can be a general lack of understanding outside the field of what the heck these people are trying to do and what would be the societal benefits. If the broader society doesn't understand what the benefits are, they're not going to support it.
Christine: 18:11 Most science funding in the US still flows through the public sector, which means now you're dealing with politicians and again, if they don't understand the societal benefit, they're not going to step up with any funding. That's the kind of approach first figuring out where is the really high leverage problem that I'm trying to solve and then what is holding this up, where are the barriers were the misunderstandings and miscommunications and how can I as a generalist assist these folks who are working so hard but not perhaps getting the leverage they need? How can I come in and assist them and get them the resources that they need to continue?
Lisa: 18:52 I love that framework and I'll break it down a little in a little more detail, but what I think I'm hearing essentially is the importance of first, identifying an area that you have passion around changing and influencing, and then recognizing what the barriers are to to forward progress, and then asking how those can be unstuck. And what you didn't specifically say but I think is implicit is looking at what the skill set you personally have that could be brought to bear on that challenge in order to lubricate it and move it forward.
Christine: 19:23 But one of the great things about your skill set is that it's malleable. I mean if you are passionate enough and you see a need, you can add something to your skill set. So one thing I had to add to mine was….Initially for many years I was not a public speaker. I did not give talks. We had other people in the organization to do that. Then there was a gap and I realized, oh gosh, it looks like it would be very beneficial if I were to pick up that skill set. So now I give talks and yes, it took time to be good at that. I mean I would recommend to anybody who wants to make change in the world or in fact anyone who's trying to accomplish just about anything in your life, learning to give talks to groups is a super valuable skill and not as hard as it seems. You wouldn't have expected someone like me who grew up being kind of a shy kid to end up being a public speaker, but I did it. So, um, I, I actually recommended it.
Lisa: 20:20 Being able to speak effectively about whatever you care about, or even somethings you don't, as practice is hugely valuable and it's one of the things that I coach on. And so I have my, my own techniques and ideas about some of the key things and the key skill sets that one can develop. But can you talk a little bit about how you went about learning to become a more effective speaker?
Christine: 20:40 The main thing is: you accept every invitation that you get! You start off with audiences that are very easy audiences, maybe audiences of friends or even children. Audiences with very low expectations who are not going to give you a hard time. And that's when you realize, oh my gosh, the audience is on my side. And in fact, in the hundreds of talks I've given, I don't think I've ever had an audience that was hostile or not on my side. Unless you're defending a phd thesis or something where there's an adversarial situation on purpose, in general the audience wants you to succeed. They're rooting for you. And what I've found is if you ever get in a jam and let's say you, your mind is blanking, you can't remember a name or a particular thing you need to remember, you can actually ask the audience. You can say, what's the name of that guy? You know the guy, he does this and that, and somebody will shout it out for you. So once you realize, my gosh, this is a team effort here, I'm not alone in front of all these people. The whole thing flips around in your head and it gets to be a fun thing to do and that's when you realize that the bigger the audiences, the more on your side they are for two reasons. One is they assume that you must be brilliant or you wouldn't be in front of an audience of a thousand people, and number two is you've got more people to help you out.
Lisa: 22:02 You're really underlining the power of the collective, which is always a theme in my conversations…We're better together! We're stronger together! We can collaborate and benefit from each other's contributions and I just want to underline and point out that creating opportunities to speak and to give other people the opportunity to share topics of interest to them is so powerful. Not only in terms of sharing information but also in terms of creating community…and it's a great way of socializing. In fact, I believe the first time I ever met you was at the first Health Extension Salon at my house.
Christine: 22:38 It could well be and organizing events, founding new event series is a very powerful way to influence the world.
Lisa: 22:46 Yeah. You know what? Let's just underlined that little more because one of the things I'm looking for in, in all of my conversations and that we've already touched on is how can your skill set and how can your strengths and your knowledge and your experience be generalized for other people's use. And if any of my listeners are in the process of reinventing themselves or at a juncture in their life or not even sure what they're going to be doing next or where they're headed…taking a particular topic area of interest and organizing an event, even if it means just inviting two or three or five or eight people over to have a discussion is powerful and super impactful in terms of growing and learning and I think that's a great demonstration of that.
Christine: 23:28 It is. And it's also an excellent way to be seen as a leader because you are showing leadership by organizing the event. You are being a leader and if you do it well, you can make an entire career come from that alone. Because you're seen as the central person, you're the one who made things happen and it's not that hard to do and it's tremendous fun. You get to meet all the leaders in the field because you're convening them together. Suddenly you're one of them. You're now classed in that same, in that same level of leadership as the speakers that you invite, so it's an amazing way to bootstrap your career. In the early days at The Foresight Institute, we were working very hard to get the word out and educate people, but we hadn't yet had a conference and one of our advisors, Stewart Brand, who is a very well known figure from the Whole Earth Catalog days said, “well, one of the most exciting things you can do is give the first conference in any field”. Then you are a leader.
Christine: 24:27 So we did do our first conference that was in 1989 and it was tremendously exciting and it made a huge change in our success level. So if any of your listeners are thinking, well, I could do that. The answer is, absolutely! You can and it'll make you be seen instantly as a leader. In terms of events that we're doing right now for 2018 going forward, we have a salon series. We started it last year. Most of the events are in San Francisco and we've covered a wide variety of topics, mostly science and technology, but I think we may be branching out this year so if any of your listeners are interested, they can go to the bottom of our homepage at Foresight.org and join the mailing list and that way you'll hear about all the salons that we're doing for this year.
Lisa: 25:13 So I will make sure to link to the Foresight and to any of the other things that you mentioned it in my show notes. And I will let you go soon, but I have a couple more things I want to ask you. Through the course of your life, through the work that you've done in these various fields, what would you say are the biggest challenges you have faced?
Christine: 25:30 Well, I think, uh, for anyone trying to do anything difficult, one of the hardest things is balance! Especially if you're working in the non-profit space as I do, you're focusing so hard on the work, so hard on making the world a better place. Meanwhile, your personal finances are not where they need to be. Another area that typically kind of falls off a cliff is taking care of your physical health, taking care of your emotional health. And the next thing you know, if you neglect it long enough…you are in financial difficulties. You've got credit card debt, you are not in shape anymore. You're losing energy, you're not sleeping, you're stressed out. You know the rest of your life goes downhill and that makes it impossible to get your work done. So you have to put enough attention in these other areas otherwise sooner or later the work will suffer and then you'll be sorry. You'll say, gosh, if only I had dealt with these matters earlier, it would have been more efficient. I think I was a little bit late. I see other friends of mine who still have not fixed this issue.
Lisa: 26:34 So if you had been able to make a difference in your own life earlier or if you had recommendations, if someone were to ask you very tangibly what kind of change they could make or what kind of practical tip they could take from you…What kind of tips or what kind of skills or strategies might you suggest?
Christine: 26:52 One mistake, and women in particular make this mistake all the time, which is we have this idea that it's OK to sacrifice our own financial well being because we're contributing to a cause. We're promoting a goal that's more important. We're not realizing that by short changing ourselves financially in the longer term, it's going to hinder our work. So I would say to listeners, whatever age they are now, male or female, if you're not being compensated appropriately and you're not making a living wage, you're not able to save, your going into debt, you're not saving for important goals. Whether that might be buying a house or if you're farther along in your career. It might be saving for retirement. If you can't do those things and if you have never had a vacation in 10 years, there is a problem! It's time to step back and say, all right, how can I continue to make a difference, but still bring in the income that I need to have a healthy lifestyle. Same thing with eating, right, sleeping right, exercising…all those things when we're young enough, we can kind of get away with cheating on those things, but not for too long. These are baseline things.
Lisa: 28:04 The idea about how we take care of our health and I know sleep is definitely a challenge for me and something that the research shows is so critically important to our health. I think you mentioned that you have done some exploration around sleep and that you have some ideas or some tips on that. Can you share that?
Christine: 28:22 I had terrible sleep issues and what I found was taking a Quantified Self approach, tracking how my sleep is doing versus other parts of my life and actually trying to measure it and quantify it. There are sleep trackers out there that will do this for you. The best one I have found by far is called the Oura Ring. You wear it on your finger. I wear mine all the time because it's not a problem. It's not obtrusive. It's not annoying. It's just it's a rather large ring, but it's not a problem. It tracks your sleep in great detail and with that data I've been able to make major, major changes and now my sleep is really excellent. So, I would say anybody who's listening who has real trouble, especially I would recommend getting one of these rings. They are awesome. They're not cheap. They're about $300 now, but I just have found it absolutely invaluable and I would've paid 10 times that for this. It's been great.
Lisa: 29:25 What changes have you implemented as a result of tracking your sleep? With the Oura?
Christine: 29:30 Everything from what time I eat dinner, what I eat for dinner, how big dinner is…obvious things like things like alcohol and caffeine are changing. I've realized that there's huge payoff for meditation. I mean, yes, we all know we're supposed to meditate, but it's hard to get yourself to do it unless you have hard data that shows a direct correlation here. I've got to do this, I've got to make time for this. It will pay off for me.
Lisa: 29:57 How does the Oura ring work in terms of correlating the variables? In other words, how do you track the impact of say alcohol or what kind of meal you eat with the sleep output?
Christine: 30:09 You have two choices. You can do it by hand. Or if you want to do a more systematic data driven type of approach, there is software it's called We Are Curious (note: it's now called Precise.ly (https://www.precise.ly/) and it's integrated with the Oura ring software, so those of you who really like numbers, that would be the way to go because you'd get heavy data that way. You get very clear information.
Lisa: 30:31 Great. So funny. The Super Power U Podcast was never really intended to be quantified-self-oriented, but I guess from being so involved in the community as it was evolving, I think almost half of my episodes of mentioned some aspects of Quantified Self.
Christine: 30:44 I'm not surprised. It's a very powerful too.
Lisa: 30:48 Totally. I recall from a few years ago you getting involved in a relationship and getting married and writing a book around that process. So can you talk a little bit about your book and what you learned through meeting your husband and getting married?
Christine: 30:59 I was single. I was dating. I wanted to be in a long-term relationship and it just wasn't happening for me. And I stumbled across a book called “Love in 90 Days” and I thought really? Love in 90 days? That sounds just impossible, but I read the book and I thought, wow, there's some great ideas here. So I implemented those ideas and sure enough, about 90 days after I started it I met my husband to be. And it took me two months to figure out this was the man, so for me it was really love in 90-150 days, but still, that's excellent! You know, if we could all be sure we would have love in 150 days, wouldn't it be great? That book had a lot of tips, but there were additional things that I learned and implemented that I thought needed to be written up, so I wrote up an Ebook of my own on finding love and a life partner and I've been going around giving talks on this topic mostly to young people. But the same exact process follows regardless of your age.
Christine: 32:04 I mean when I did it, I was over 50, which makes it harder but still worked fine. It's written for women, but I think men can benefit also. Yeah. I had a lot of fun writing it up. I really love giving talks on this and I'm getting good feedback from the from the readers. One thing that really annoys me is seeing people who are alone who don't want to be alone. That's one way to really lose your effectiveness in the world. If you're lonely –and it's not necessary– you know there's somebody out there for you. So that's what drove me to write this. I love to see people find their life partners. It's so rewarding.
Lisa: 32:42 You already mentioned the way that my listeners can follow you and The Foresight Institute. Is there any other way that people can be in contact with you or find out about what you're doing?
Christine: 32:51 Sure. I would say in addition to signing up for the Foresight.org list, I do a huge amount of Facebook posting and if you're interested, you can find me on Facebook, send me a friend request and then send me a message. You know, don't just stop there. You have to send me a message and say, “hey, I'm a real person. I heard you on the show. Let's connect.” I would love to be connected to your listeners because I know they're such cool people.
Lisa: 33:17 OK, that sounds great. And I think I might be able to link in the show notes too, so take that point to heart that. You do need to message Christine separately?
Lisa: 33:26 Thank you so much for your time, Christine. I'm thrilled to have had you on this show and I'm so grateful for the time that you've taken to talk with me today.
Christine: 33:34 So glad we did this, Lisa. I knew it would be a blast and I look forward to hearing feedback whether it's the e-book or Foresight or whatever, and I love doing it.
Lisa: 33:45 Right. Thanks again. Bye. Bye.