Fascination with Space and Retaining the Child in Us
January 15, 2013
My fascination (I hesitate to call it passion) with space began decades ago as a child. I have always been fascinated by the natural and the physical world and have maintained my childhood curiosity about both right up to my 60s (my 60th birthday arrives this year). I was born into a religious family (at the time, fundamental Christian) but the things I read in books about the solar system, geology, and living things brought with them dissatisfaction with the inadequate cosmology of my religious background.
My fascination with space has come from the books I read as a child. But it also came from the heady technological advances in the 1960s and 1970s that made it possible for men to walk on the moon and for hardy little spaceships to land on Mars.
I watched Star Trek in black and white when my mother let us get away with that and absorbed the ethical and social principles that were alluded to beside all that punching that William Shatner did. When Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, it was the first film I went to the theatres 3 times to see.
My fascination has come from my need to know the answers to the greatest mysteries: how did life originate? Does life exist anywhere in the universe but here? What is the nature of that life? How do worlds form and why are some dead and some alive? Why is the universe so big? How did it arise out of a singularity?
These questions spark the philosophical ones: Where are we humans going? Are we just like "the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime" or is there something more for us? Do we have a choice?
I don't really understand why it matters to me that we search for life beyond Earth. I'm not lonely. I have the company of 6 billion other human beings. I don't really understand why it matters to me that I know how life emerged from inanimate matter. It won't make a difference to my financial well-being or my health or success in life. What does it matter that someone has found planets orbiting Alpha Centauri B or Tau Ceti? Why does it matter that I know the composition of Titan's atmosphere?
There is something in some of us. I say some of us because I'm not sure it survives in many of us as we grow up. But there is something in us that makes us want to know what's over the next hill, what's under that rock, how the world.....the universe works.
If I have any vision for the Planetary Society, it is that its efforts focus where they will have the greatest influence. We should focus some of our effort on encouraging and fostering the natural curiosity of children so they do not lose it as they grow older. An effort of $100 with a child of 8 is probably worth many, many times what the same effort with a jaded adult will gain us.
My vision of the Planetary Society is that it will become more and more international. Its political focus is almost exclusively on the United States and this leaves those of us in other countries feeling like this is something we have no right to be involved in. I'm one of those polite, bland Canadians and I have refused to sign any petition to the US federal gov't about space science funding because I feel this is none of my business. It is not my country. I understand why the focus is with the US gov't. The Planetary Society is based in California and, let's face it, the most impressive examples of space science and space exploration have so far been conducted by this amazing nation. Probably no other nation on Earth spends on space science what America does.
But we see disturbing signs that the leaders of the US are stepping back away from the crest of the intellectual wave. Jacob Bronowski said something in his book, and TV series of the 1970s, The Ascent of Man, that seems relevant. He said:
“It sounds very pessimistic to talk about Western civilization with a sense of retreat. I’ve been so optimistic about the ascent of man, am I going to give up at this moment? Of course not. The ascent of man will go on, but don’t assume that it will go on carried by Western civilization as we know it.
“We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken, but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are a scientific civilization. That means a civilization in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial. ‘Science’ is only a Latin word for knowledge. If we don’t take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere—in Africa, in China.”
The last bit of my vision is that we have to have a different time frame in mind than most of our world. We have to be in this for the long term. We must be patient. As the father of the Ellie Arroway character in the movie Contact says "small steps, Ellie, small steps." We have to have the time sense of Arthur C. Clarke's book "The Songs of Distant Earth". Frankly, as a civilization, we are barely ready for planetary exploration and travel, let alone beyond. All we have to do to know we are not ready is to look at how we treat our fellow human space travellers right here on this "pale blue dot".
We must explore. It is in our "soul". Any other choice is to go down to death and living out our lives the way all the other creatures do.
An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.