Saturday, November 15, 2014

Why Isn't Every Person Enthralled By Space Exploration?

On Wednesday, the human race landed on a comet.

It's easy to type that sentence, but the simple and stunning reality is so amazing that it sends a shiver up my spine. The human race landed on a comet! More prosaically, a robotic mission by the European Space Agency called Rosetta set down a small lander, called Philae, on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, following a ten year, four billion mile voyage. Never before has a space exploration mission been able to study a comet so closely. It promises to answer a huge number of questions we have about the big, dirty snowballs spiraling around our Sun and, as science goes, give us an even larger number of new questions.

There was drama aplenty. Philae's landing system failed, causing the plucky robot to initially bounce back off the surface and come down in a different and thus far unknown location. It ended up lying in the shadow of a cliff, preventing its solar panels from receiving sufficient sunlight and dooming its batteries to a quick demise. The engineers and scientists running the Rosetta mission desperately tried to find a solution, while racing against time to retrieve the critical scientific data before the batteries gave out. The brave little robot eventually did fall silent, but not before delivering enough science back to the European team to completely revolutionize our understanding of comets.

I find all this utterly fascinating and enthralling, but then I have always been absorbed by space exploration. Years ago, in what seems like a previous life, I engaged in a quixotic effort to create a political action committee designed to promote space exploration (it didn't work, sadly). To me, the quest to explore space draws on deep-seated, even primal, human emotions that have been hard-wired into us by evolution. It's the same thing that drove Ferdinand Magellan to attempt the circumnavigation of the planet, that drove, the Montgolfier brothers to soar upwards in their balloons, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore the American West, and a generation of hardy explorers to risk their lives to reach the North and South Poles of the Earth.

James Cook, perhaps the greatest explorer who ever lived, put it best when he said, "Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go."

My question is simply this: why isn't every person enthralled by space exploration? Right now, even as I type this blog entry, two robot rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are scurrying across the face of Mars, while a veritable armada of orbiting robots send by many different nations circle overhead. The enormous Cassini orbiter are spiraling around Saturn, revolutionizing our understanding of the most beautiful planet in the Solar System. The New Horizons mission is en route to Pluto, while the Messenger mission continues its exploration of Mercury. The Dawn spacecraft, powered by a revolutionary ion engine, is moving through the asteroid belt. There are lots of exciting things happening in our Solar System these days.

We live in the greatest age of exploration and discovery since the 18th Century. Anyone with an Internet connection and an ounce of curiosity can follow the adventures of these intrepid robotic spacecraft, sharing in the drama and the excitement of discovery. Why, then, do so many people choose to waste their time watching crude reality television shows or playing frivolous computer games? You wouldn't choose to eat a cheap fast food meal when you could eat in a three Michelin starred restaurant, would you?

The Rosetta-Philae mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a reminder of what the human race can accomplish when we rise above the foul inanity that characterizes so much of the modern world and try to fulfill our real potential. It's worth celebrating.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Sigh For The Eighteenth Century

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was dispatched by Congress to serve as a diplomat in Europe. A major part of his diplomatic mission was to negotiate and conclude treaties of friendship and commerce with as many European nations as possible. Jefferson wrote out a draft treaty and spent several years trying to persuade the great powers of the Old World to sign on. To Jefferson's disappointment, few paid much attention. Only Prussia, then ruled by Frederick the Great, eventually signed the treaty.

I have always been especially intrigued by Article 23 of the treaty Jefferson wrote.

If war should arise between the two contracting parties, the merchants of either country, then residing in the other, shall be allowed to remain nine months to collect their debts and settle their affairs, and may depart freely, carrying offs all their effects, without molestation or hindrance. And all women and children, scholars of every faculty, cultivators of the earth, artisans, manufacturers and fishermen, unarmed and inhabiting unfortified towns, villages, or places, and in general all others whose occupations are for the common subsistence and benefit of mankind, shall be allowed to continue their respective employments and shall not be molested in their persons, nor shall their houses be burnt or otherwise destroyed, nor shall their fields wasted by the armed forces of the enemy into whose power, by the events of war, they may happen to fall; but if anything is necessary to be taken from them for the use of such armed force, the same shall be paid for it at a reasonable price.

When Benjamin Franklin was serving as Minister to France during the Revolutionary War, he was responsible for coordinating the activities of American privateers who were preying on British merchant ships. In the midst of all his myriad duties, Franklin took the time to instruct them what to do in the event that they encountered the ships of the legendary explorer James Cook, who had sailed from England on his third voyage of exploration in the South Pacific some time earlier. Here is what Franklin wrote:

A ship having been fitted out from England before the commencement of this war, to make discoveries of new countries in unknown seas, under the conduct of that most celebrated navigator, Captain Cook; an undertaking truly laudable in itself, as the increase of geographical knowledge facilitates the communication between distant nations, in the exchange of useful products and manufactures, and the extension of arts, whereby the common enjoyments of human life are multiplied and augmented, and science of other kinds increased to the benefit of mankind in general; this is, therefore, most earnestly to recommend to every one of you, that, in case the said ship, which is now expected to be soon in the European seas on her return, should happen to fall into your hands, you would not consider her as an enemy, nor suffer any plunder to be made of the effects contained in her, nor obstruct her immediate return to England, by detaining her or sending her into any other part of Europe or to America, but that you would treat the said Captain Cook and his people with all civility and kindness, affording them, as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power, which they may happen to stand in need of.

Just reading these words fills me with a sense of wonder. Jefferson and Franklin were both pragmatic and realistic politicians, well-versed in the shenanigans and dirty tricks by which men achieve their political objectives. Yet they possessed a vision and a sense of optimism that was the hallmark of their century and which is utterly absent in our own age.

One wonders what Jefferson and Franklin would have thought had they witnessed the total warfare of the last century. What would they have thought of unrestricted submarine warfare and mass use of chemical weapons, and massacres of entire populations during the First World War? What would they have thought of the area bombing of enemy cities and intentional slaughter of civilian populations in the Second World War? What would they have thought of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent construction of nuclear arsenals so large they could have destroyed human civilization many times over?

Our own age has its share of wonders, not least in the realms of science and medicine. Yet we have also lost more than we'd probably care to admit. Jefferson and Franklin imagined that we could use the power to human reason to form society into something close to utopia. At the very least, we could make the world far better than it is. That was the dream of the Enlightenment. Yet after the world wars, after the Holocaust, after the creation of nuclear weapons, it's easy to see why the Enlightenment has been so thoroughly discredited.

But despair is never useful. If Jefferson and Franklin could speak to us across the centuries, they would surely remind us that it's always within our power to make our world into what we truly want it to be. We have but to summon up the will to act.