Whenever I get going enthusiastically about science, and especially about space exploration, giggles are a pretty common reaction. The reasons for derision vary, of course.
Some of us think that money spent on exploring and understanding the universe would be better spent solving problems here on Earth. Aside from being a red herring of an argument – since there will always be problems on Earth of some kind – this argument presents an incredibly depressing contention about the state of human life: that things have gotten so bad, we can’t afford big dreams anymore.
What complete and utter silliness. So many of the problems that we would look to solve first flow from the selfish, navel-gazing greed of our culture. Throwing money at them won’t help without a change in mindset, without placing more emphasis on the fact that simply gathering knowledge is a singularly important thing. We need to rediscover discovery.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for how useful science is, how even seemingly abstract and obscure branches of the physical sciences can yield concrete rewards for us – but those discussions are beside the point. We need to remind ourselves of the value of simple exploration.
Exploration on Earth. We still don’t have an adequate understanding of what really goes on under the oceans. We don’t have a grasp of just how biologically diverse the ecosystems around us really are. We are only beginning to grasp how brains and minds and languages fit together.
Exploration off the Earth. We live in a system of 9 planets, dozens and dozens of moons, and countless asteroids and comets, yet we’ve only ever set down footprints on one of them. Robot probes have done better, but we still have unimaginably much to learn about our own backyard. Who knows what fundamental breakthroughs we’re missing out on, sitting here stewing self-righteously in our own juices.
The border of our curiosity shouldn’t stop at the edge of the Solar System, by any means. There are countless billions of other ones to take a look at. We’ve just launched a telescope that is specifically designed to look for Earth-like planets around them. Not to say that only places like this could produce life, but it seems a reasonable guess that we’d have something in common with people that arose from a similar environment.
Think about that. For one second, set aside cynicism and irony and doubt and imagine the moment we discover that we’re not alone out here. It would be the single most important moment. Ever.
There’s the rub, though. We’re so steeped in satire and ironic detachment and small-mindedness that when we start to think big, we recoil. For those of us exposed to academic discourse, the very ideas of exploration and discovery sometimes finds themselves linked to the abuses carried out in their names.