The Google is Destroying Our Capacity to Dream

By Sean Carroll | December 29, 2006 12:24 pm

NASA is sad. (Via Orin Kerr.) They have a spiffy new mission to go to the Moon, which speaks directly to our innermost yearnings to leverage our capabilities and energize a coordinated effort. Really, the kind of stuff that makes us truly human.

If anyone should be excited by this, it’s the two groups NASA cares about the most: young adults, and members of Congress.

At an October workshop attended by 80 NASA message spinners, young adults were right up there with Congress as the top two priorities for NASA’s strategic communications efforts.

But the target audience is not going along!

Young Americans have high levels of apathy about NASA’s new vision of sending astronauts back to the moon by 2017 and eventually on to Mars, recent surveys show.

Concerned about this lack of interest, NASA’s image-makers are taking a hard look at how to win over the young generation — media-saturated teens and 20-somethings growing up on YouTube and Google and largely indifferent to manned space flight.

So apparently, we blame the internets. The leap from media-saturation to Moon-apathy seems a bit of a stretch to me, but I understand that one must blame somebody. I blame the fact that the Moon/Mars initiative is eviscerating honest science at NASA, and also that “we must get there before the Chinese do” doesn’t currently evoke the “we must get there before the Soviets do” xenophobia that was so effective in the Sixties.

But we shouldn’t fear, as there is a solution for the frustrating indifference shown by those lazy kids today: celebrity endorsements.

Tactics encouraged by the workshop included new forms of communication, such as podcasts and YouTube; enlisting support from celebrities, like actors David Duchovny (“X-Files”) and Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”); forming partnerships with youth-oriented media such as MTV or sports events such as the Olympics and NASCAR; and developing brand placement in the movie industry.

Outside groups have offered ideas too, such as making it a priority to shape the right message about the next-generation Orion missions.

And NASA should take a hint from Hollywood, some suggested.

“The American public engages with issues through people, personalities, celebrities, whatever,” said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, a space advocacy group. “When you don’t have that kind of personality, or face, or faces associated with your issue, it’s a little bit harder for the public to connect.”

I understand that the X-Files and ST:TNG are the hot media properties on the streets these days. Never let it be said that NASA’s instinctive feel for the cutting edge of coolness is anything other than maximally supa-fresh.

If I may humbly offer a suggestion. It’s possible that youthful apathy towards the promise of a Moon base is not due to a short-circuit of wonder caused by too-easy access to YouTube videos. It might be, instead, that this apathy is due to the complete absence of any compelling rationale for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this project. Perhaps we could return to a management philosophy in which we first hit upon a really good reason for doing something, and then we figure out how to do it and work on spreading the excitement, rather than the reverse order. Maybe — just maybe — those kids today are sophisticated enough not to get excited by boondoggles, but they might actually be enthusiastic about learning surprising new things about the universe.

I want to believe.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
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  • http://www.astro.utoronto.ca/~zqhuang zq

    Young Chinese are googlized, too.

  • http://quthoughts.blogspot.com Joe Fitzsimons

    I have another explanation to offer. Man has already been to the moon and the idea of returning in 11 years, nearly fifty years after the first mission is not very inspiring.

    The idea that we once had the capability to reach beyond our planet and have since lost it is depressing. Announcing an attempt to recover that capabiility is obviously not going to be treated with the same enthusiasm as the first few missions. Mars may attract more attention, but its a long way off, which means that its unlikely that people will get excited about it any time soon.

    Frankly I think the public isn’t concerned about the science as we would all like, so I think the harm to NASAs science programs is the main concern. Also, I doubt the expense is the main concern either, as it is basically small change compared to the cost of the war in Iraq, etc.

    So I’m lead to the conclusion that going back to the moon simply isn’t an ambitious enough project. It’s not pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The problem was solved 40 years ago.

    I think what NASA actually would need to do in order to get the enthusiasm levels they want is to propose a mission which is well beyond what the average person on the street believes is possible.

  • Paul Schmit

    True dat.

    I can’t even fathom what kind of groundbreaking, terrestrial science could be accomplished with the budget NASA would be appropriating for this space odyssey. Consider the LHC’s pricetag at $8 billion, or ITER’s pricetag at around $15 billion. These pale in comparison to the cost of establishing a “moon base” or traveling to Mars. There is so much concern about the US possibly losing its stronghold on the top slot for scientific innovation, and yet the health of the scientific job market and the available resources would improve drastically with just a fraction of these misguided budgets directed toward more useful and multifaceted ends. And this rant is dangerously close to diverting to the subject of the misappropriation of potentially paradigm-shattering discretionary funding as a result of the ::cough cough:: war effort ::cough cough::.

    I personally would like to see NASA put a couple more scientists on the project that will determine what course of action we would take if we discovered a meteor on a collision course with our planet (considering only a couple scientists are even thinking about this idea right now…damn armageddon week on the history channel for putting one major buzzkill on my holidays). Besides, who is going to volunteer to head to Mars? Either you’ll be stylishly careening toward the red planet in a massive lead spaceship, or you’ll be fried by cosmic radiation before you’re even close to sticking your beach umbrella in the red sand and basking in the utterly inhospitable atmosphere.

    But oh man, a moon base would just be SO COOL!

  • Consumatopia

    You’re spot on as to why the kids don’t care about the moon. Unfortunately, kids probably don’t care about space probes and telescopes either, for exactly the same reason–it serves no near-term purpose for any life on planet Earth. And, frankly, there’s no point in sanctimony over people not caring enough about distant stars while their fellow humans starve to death. The stars will still be there even if we don’t see them (one supposes) while the children will NOT still be there if we fail to feed them. Yes, I know, Iraq is a bigger waste of money, but a smaller waste of money is still a waste of money.

    I sympathize with the view that knowledge is good in and of itself, but I happen to think future scientists will be more qualified to build probes and analyze data than today’s scientists are, therefore we should spend most of our resources on making sure there’s still a future for future scientists to live in. If you want additional funding for NASA, you can’t just argue for “honest science”, you have to argue for “useful science”–science that will sustain us long enough to do better science in the future.

  • Paul Schmit

    ah, Joe beat me to the war topic while I was typing up my comment…

  • Belizean

    It [youthful apathy] might be, instead, that this apathy is due to the complete absence of any compelling rationale for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this project.

    Would that this were the case. Consumatopia is right. The young (and the old) are equally apathetic about projects that maximize the scientific knowlege acquired per dollar spent.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    I think that today’s kids are simply too cynical to believe that this moonbase thingie is ever going to get off the ground in the first place and would rather wait and see before getting too excited over it.

  • spyder

    Another piece of this puzzle is the constant media insistence that the vast majority of people in this country (and 90% of the Earth’s human population) just aren’t wealthy enough to deserve these sorts of opportunities. As Joe mentions above: I think what NASA actually would need to do in order to get the enthusiasm levels they want is to propose a mission which is well beyond what the average person on the street believes is possible.

    That “average person” sees: wealthy folks purchasing space flights or other special rides and opportunities, disgusting displays of discretionary wealth expended on sweet sixteen parties, the growing gianormous disparity in the incomes levels of those that have and those that will never (oh that character flaw of the poor), and so forth and so on, on a daily basis (you can find endless examples in the MSM every day). Sending ten or so people to live on the moon is yet another example of the elitists getting something that few will every be able to even imagine.

    We struggle as a society to make sense of our own lives, without beginning to ask the lot to offer tax revenues for manned-space exploration. Can we really envision a plethora of new technologies that are going to make all our lives better on a dying planet???? When will the next great sweet sixteen girl be given a ticket to ride off as a Branson’s space tourist?

  • http://seeyouatenceladus.blogspot.com/ Babbler

    Maybe — just maybe — those kids today are sophisticated enough not to get excited by boondoggles, but they might actually be enthusiastic about learning surprising new things about the universe.

    I want to believe.

    I third the doubt. They don’t care about any long term projects, be they simple space exploration, scientific projects (either pure or applied) or otherwise. They are solely focused on short term rewards. If it were otherwise, their would a lot less environmental problems to fix.

  • George Musser

    Sean, although it is true that people are all too quick to blame (or, in the case of Wired magazine, praise) the Internet for everything, it seems plausible to me that lack of interest and engagement in certain activities could stem from an overload of stimulation and choice — for which the Internet is partly to blame. I see this in myself: I find it hard to concentrate on any one thing because so much is coming at me. I used to be a political activist (on nuclear weapons in the ’80s, on Bosnia and public transit in the ’90s) but then got so overwhelmed by the world’s problems that I didn’t know which to pick, so I picked none.

    It might be, instead, that this apathy is due to the complete absence of any compelling rationale for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this project. Perhaps we could return to a management philosophy in which we first hit upon a really good reason for doing something, and then we figure out how to do it and work on spreading the excitement, rather than the reverse order.

    First, the same might have been said of the Apollo program or, as Consumatopia pointed out, of science — or art, or music, or anything that isn’t strictly utilitarian. Second, a lot of people think that the thrill of human exploration is a compelling rationale. Indeed, I would argue that science falls under the category of exploration and thus is no different in principle from climbing a mountain just because it is there. Third, I don’t think any human endeavor works in the linear way you suggest. Science certainly doesn’t proceed neatly from motivation to action. The two are intermixed or even reversed.

    George

  • thm

    NASA employs 80 message spinners and all they can come up with is the transparently uninspiring management-speak about leveraging capabilities and energizing coordinated efforts? Why don’t the people who write like that feel shameful? I do think we need a new set of pejorative descriptors of management-speak language.

    The solutions put forward–anything except develop a compelling program, it seems–make me cringe the same way I cringe when Lynn Johnston tries to write youth slang in For Better or For Worse. Maybe their movie placements can involve a young boy dreaming of energizing coordinated efforts when he grow up.

  • Philip

    Shoot, the Mercruy, Gemini, and Apollo programs gave us Tang and Teflon for only a few lousy billion dollars; who knows what a half-a-trillion-dollar ticket to Mars will produce?

  • http://diodati.omniscientx.com Elia Diodati

    How about because people in my generation are more concerned and/or more informed about the news telling us that the world is going to pieces – that a good college degree is no longer the magic ticket to a nice stable career; that the world is being run by politicians increasingly disconnected with reality; that state welfare is an increasingly expensive mistake, and that a savvy investment portfolio is really the only acceptable minimum for a comfortable retirement – that the world is an uncertain, somewhat uncaring place that eats naïveté for breakfast, dogma for lunch and idealism for dinner, and we have no option but to go forward anyway.

    Please, give us Gen Yers some credit for some modicum of brains. The baby boomers have their problems; we have ours.

  • http://theeternaluniverse.blogspot.com Joseph Smidt

    Google does not destroy man’s ability to wonder. It enhances what man is able to conceive by giving him/her access to a vast amount of information. New ideas I get from the internet give me a lot more to think about than I otherwise would.

    People should be more worried about the brain washing that can occur if one is limited in the amount of information he/she can access. You will find that most societies who try to brainwash people do so by limiting the information they have access to, like these Polygamous here in Utah. First thing to go is all access and information from the “outside” world.

  • http://robot_guy.blogspot.com Ed Minchau

    Philip, Tang and Teflon (and for that matter, Velcro) predate the formation of NASA.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Hi Sean, – because it is there, that’s why?

    Why do the young want to go to Thailand?
    Why do the young want to go clubbing all night?
    Why do the young want to drive pedal to the metal?
    Why do the youn want to ‘own’ dvds – what no ipod?

    Why do the young want to get drunk or ‘out of their heads’?
    Why do the young want Nike or whatever other brand name?
    Why build cars that can do 150MPH with a 55MPH or 70MPH limit on roads.
    Why force cheap food from Africa onto the EU, when Africans are starving

    PS – Audi cars have more patents than NASA.
    Maybe german and EU engineering is where it’s at. May Be.

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    Having arguedrepeatedly! — against the Moon base and Mars mission, I’m happy that Sean has also been arguing against these. But, I’m even more delighted that young adults have a “high level of apathy” about these boring and incredibly expensive projects.

    Blaming the internet for this is a bit silly. However, in a certain way it makes sense.

    The big shift from the 1960s vision of the future to the present vision is that we’re now less interested in exploring “outer space”, and more interested in exploring “inner space”: biotechnology, nanotechnology, computers, and their various blendings. Right now there’s just a lot more fun stuff to do with small things on Earth than big things far away. And, the internet is part of this!

    You can sit at home with a cheap laptop, access the collected thoughts of humankind through the internet, and talk to everyone in the world — or you can power up an enormous expensive rocket to shoot through 384400 kilometers of bleak empty space to land on… a bleak empty rock!

    And now NASA says: “We did that, and we brought back some rocks — but now, if we all pay even more, someone can live on that bleak empty rock!”

    Is it any wonder that young adults are unexcited about this prospect?

  • Richard

    I agree totally with John. And like I’ve said somewhere before, I have no desire to leave the beautiful trees, butterflies and bunnies in my backyard, and my wonderful dog, for a bleak, dull, lifeless rock. A single hour walk through the woods is probably more brain stimulation than you could get from the surface of the moon in a hundred years, and you don’t even have to go anywhere to do math! We even keep discovering fascinating species of animals, birds, fish, etc. right here on our very own planet. We have little knowledge at all of the bottom of our very own oceans! I think this project of sending people to the Moon and to Mars is just an extension of an old and out of date macho engineering culture, and I emphasize the word “engineering”, because that’s all it is; there is no science there.

    And speaking of dogs, I think mine would be incredibly unhappy trying to sniff stuff through a space helmet.

  • yagwara

    Thanks for this post! I think your appraisal is dead on. Average people, I think, see many of the same things most scientists see: Hubble is exciting. Looking for earthlike planets is exciting. Exploring Europa’s oceans is exciting. Sending people to kick around on a barren rock in the hopes of sending them to a more distant barren rock – dull, dull, deadly dreadful dull.

  • one of the “young adult” focus group

    As a young adult and physics student, about the only interesting thing about these aimless manned “explorations” is the excitement watching CNN live, in case the thing blows up (and disappointment when it doesn’t.)

  • RP

    Stephen Hawking has enthusiastically come out in favor of space colonization in the name of reducing the odds of a complete wipe-out of the human race, and I think he’s on to something.

    Many smart people are saying, “Yeah, but that’s best left to the private sector.”

    Is this realistic? Are people like Virgin Galactic really going to find enough incentivesprofit in space to colonize?

  • http://angrylabrat.blogspot.com Angry Lab Rat

    Ditto. As I said in one of my blog posts

    (http://angrylabrat.blogspot.com/2006/12/spaced-out.html)

    this endeavor is just another blatant attempt at distraction from Bush’s failures (war, deficit, education…..). As a scientist and a lifelong lover of all things scifi, I long for a realistic return to space. But let’s have true scientific justifications and a meaningful attempt.

  • http://cgi.stanford.edu/~dpfau/blosxom.cgi David Pfau

    I was a space junkie from the time I was little. When the 25 anniversary retrospective for the 1969 moon landing came around my 9th birthday, I devoured all the TV specials and books that came out, including “Lost Moon” before it became “Apollo 13”. I eagerly followed news on the web regarding the great replacement to the space shuttle, the Venture Star! (Anyone remember that? They sank about a billion into it before the fuel tanks cracked and they realized it was unworkable). Then I watched X-mission after X-mission get cut for budgetary reasons, until suddenly there was nothing left. Then Bush walks in, drops some bit about the moon in his State of the Union, and suddenly NASA loses half its science budget with no one noticing. Between being a blatant Bush plan to cut NASA science spending, a design as exciting as a new Ford Pinto (though probably more sensible than another wing-based design) and general ignorance from the public (guess how many people know that the capsule is called “Orion.” I didn’t until I just checked on wikipedia), it’s no surprise that this isn’t generating big buzz from us “idealistic youth.” Personally, years of bullshit from both NASA and Bush has dimmed my enthusiasm significantly. My money is on private ventures now: Scaled Composites, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceX. And, while we’re dreaming: a space elevator past geosynchronous orbit by 2020! Now there’s a project to inspire a generation.

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    Perhaps the apathy is due to the “been there, done that” problem: sending people back to the moon is like remaking a classic movie. Not always so exciting as the original … in fact, often it is just boring. To get any publicity at all, it has to be hyped out of all proportion, or perhaps it will get publicity if it ends in disaster (which is pretty likely, seeing NASA’s recent safety record).

  • Jeff

    As a NASA scientist/engineer, I’m running far and fast from most of the Constellation projects for the moon and Mars. But a lot of people inside NASA don’t think it’s going to happen like it’s being hyped — just waiting it out until a new President and administrator are in, when it will be scaled back to something maybe more reasonable.

    That said — I think everyone’s being a bit territorial and myopic when the complaint is that if instead we just funded LHC-II/ Thirty-meter-telescope/ My Big Project that the “youth” would be excited by that. They wouldn’t care about that either — when one is speaking about the broadest section of public youth. As others have said, rarely, if ever, has “youth” monolithically gotten behind some great scientific venture.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    Sean, 500 years ago people would argue what does Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus to you) want three ships (at the then cost of three space shuttles) to look for a route to the Indies thru the West.
    And since then America (the US, central & south america. and Canada) has developed into where you live today.
    Maybe in 500 years the Moon could be as busy as New York or California – wasn’t California a pretty empty ‘rock’ and what was there in Nevada begore ‘las Vegas’ arrived?

    Who would have thought a hundred years ago that one third of the people on earth would spend at least an hour a day in a tin box with wheels – and half that time in a traffic jam during rush hour – not moving.

    John Baez, sure the internet video-conferencing and communicating online can do many things and save many air miles, but as Sean and JoAnne have said here before you can’t have (or enjoy) the interaction of the wine party afterwards.
    Also you can travel anywhere in the world on line, but people use the internet as a travel brochure and then want to go and visit the places ‘in the flesh’
    Incidentally I don’t understanding shopping online other than music and books perhaps. Shopping for clothes and goods is still better in the high street stores.
    And don’t forget when you shop online for food the food still has to be delivered … no replicators yet
    Unless you call production lines semi-replicators. lol!

  • http://alvelda.blogspot.com Phillip Alvelda

    I LOVE the suggestion about leveraging celebrities and the media to sell the space dream. Having worked at NASA back in the eighties and actually having built and handled a few instruments that reached orbit and even other planets, I am definitely sold on the dream and, at the same time, frustrated with the current realities of a largely underfunded bureaucracy that is today’s NASA. Despite all the frustrations, though, it has been a banner year for the agency results-wise with Hubble continuing to perform, the unstoppable Mars rovers, and the Nobel prize nod.

    Yet with all of that, most of my friends and colleagues are simply unaware of what is really happening. It is no wonder nobody is interested or supportive of expanded budgets. They never even hear the science news amidst the clamor of popular celebrity-driven culture. (this, in fact was one of the key motivators to start my own science and technology blog.)

    This post reminded me of a rather sad moment that supports the need for celebrity spokespeople. Back in the mid nineties, when I was the CTO at MicroDisplay, my girlfriend of that era, also a fine product of MIT, was recruited to present at the Discovery Magazine technology awards ceremony at Disney World, and I got to tag along and chat with some other folks from the MIT mafia that happened to be around the show. Several other luminaries and celebrities were recruited to present, including Bruce McCandless, the first Astronaut to pilot the MMU without any tether. Here is the link to the canonical image from his first untethered space walk. How cool is that?

    The grand irony for me was that after the show, I happened to be sitting next to McCandless as we watched LeVar Burton, then playing Giordi Laforge on Star Trek: TNG get absolutely swarmed with fans, while nobody even gave McCandless a second glance. I turned to McCandless and asked him if he thought it was odd that people seemed more interested in the person that pretended to be in space, rather than the first person to actually fly a jet pack in space. He chuckled rather ruefully,and we just shook our heads together. The power of celebrity indeed. At least I had a great chat with the real space jockey all to myself.

  • ponte

    I’m a fairly young adult and NASA’s J-Track 3D still blows me away every time I play with it. I think there are a lot more opportunities to engage the youth along the lines of that level of interactivity instead of celebrity pandering. Another manned mission to the moon just seems like harebrained nostalgia. As Apollo 19 astronaut, Captain Bern Hembrook said, “I walked on the moon. I did a pushup, ate an egg on it. What else can you do with it?”

  • http://quantumfieldtheory.org nc

    Ponte, you can get severely irradiated on it. The background radiation on the moon at solar minimum is 1 mR/hr (10 micro Sv/hr), about 9 R (9 cSv) per year. That’s 100 times the background radiation in London. On earth, the atomsphere is equivalent to a 10 metres thick (10 tons/sq. metre) radiation shield, and the earth’s magnetic field reduces the hazard by deflecting and trapping electrically charged particles. There’s no such protection on the moon. You’d need massive underground bunkers to avoid cancer risks. In a solar storm, anyone caught outside could receive a massive radiation dose. The moon is just not suitable for life.

  • kwan (the voice of cynicality)

    Young chinese you say… (that would be me). Does that mean I’m googlized? Maybe I am… (ironically that’s how I found this blog).

    Btw, what I think of the moon idea; it’s complete waste of time and money. While I admire the adventerous spirit, it lacks any application. What does going to the moon (again) do for science? (Zero-g projects don’t have to involve the moon. And oh yes, I despise mass media, for those of you who have read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty).

  • kwan (the voice of cynicality)

    I forgot to mention something, the likiness and the possiblity of being able to live on the moon might be increased if we developed our technology here on Earth more first.

  • http://futuremodern.blogspot.com/ George Rodart

    When I was in my twenties, I worked on the Apollo project. It was an exciting time, we didn’t worry about why we were going to send a man to the moon, only that our little effort worked flawlessly. So I have an interest, perhaps with a bit of nostalgia, in seeing man make it back to the moon again. However, I’m inclined to believe that at the present time, the idea of spending billions of dollars to revisit the moon is politically motivated and deflects attention away from pressing scientific and social problems.

    I would have been impressed if NASA had proposed a 10 year, 100 billion dollar program to find a solution for generating energy which didn’t pollute the atmosphere or produce radioactive byproducts with a half-life of 10,000 years. I’m thinking fusion, but I’m an artist and not up to speed on the potential solutions. Maybe I’m dreaming, but isn’t that how the future starts?

  • Philip

    Ed Minchau–

    I forgot about Velcro, but are you saying someone/something–the government, NASA, anonymous PR people–misled me about Tang and Teflon, too?

    I’m shocked!

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    To concure with George Rodart, I’d like to think that the same collection of people (young or old) that are interested in science enough to care about going to the moon and mars are, strangely, exactly the same people who know about and are concerned about global climate change.

    I hear that, as the Titanic was going down, the youth onboard were strangely un-interested in the hot new tunes the band wanted to play — probably the fault of jazz and radios.

  • ponte

    Amen to that, Maynard.

  • George Rodart

    …exactly the same people who know about and are concerned about global climate change. This is my perception also. I shared a ride to the airport with a young man who was an undergraduate at Caltech. We had a nice conversation and his concerns and interests were much more down to earth. I found it encouraging.

    Since it’s the end of the year, the sinkhole for top ten lists.

    If a wise government were to commit substantial funding to a scientific project, or projects, with the expectation they would be targeted to achieve practical results in the near future. What would they be?

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Sean,

    I agree with you that blaming the internet is probably wrong, but I don’t think your interpretation is correct. You say that apathy is …due to the complete absence of any compelling rationale for spending hundreds of billions of dollars on this project.

    Well, if that’s the case, what scientific projects are young people more excited about? String theory? Dark matter? The complete sequencing of human DNA?

    I don’t see young people as having much enthusiasm for science of any kind. Maybe you prefer other projects over manned space exploration, but is there really any evidence that large numbers share your opinion?

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Daryl,
    Wouldn’t you say that people are more excited about String theory, Dark matter, DNA since there is a market for popular books on these subjects (there may be a market for NASA’s program too but it might be smaller because one doesn’t see much popular book in that area)?

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Chinmaya,

    Well, the apathy noted in the CNN article was determined by a public opinion poll. While there may be a market for those books, is it really a significant fraction of the public (enough to make a dent in a public opinion poll?) I’m not asking rhetorically, I really don’t know the answer.

  • Chastity

    A colony on the moon? A city on Mars? What do these ideas really mean? They mean a prison on the moon, weapons throughout the solar system, a war on terror in space and a Martian war on drugs. Do we really need to spread the madness throughout the universe?

    I’m for building a supercollider on earth and a huge gravity wave detector in space. I favor these and similar projects that would employ physicists in useful and ennobling capacities rather than as the weapons hacks that some 80%+ of physics graduates become.

    But these are thoughts that belong only to star gazers and outsiders like me. You guys who at at the top in theoretical physics had betteer keep still – you could lose your funding!

  • Ike Solem

    How about taking a good look at our own planet before sending Americans to Mars for photo ops? NASA has hacked the funding of various climate satellites in favor of the Moon-Mars business – I’d rather see ocean color satellites and gravity-mapping satellites being put in Earth orbit for data collection. (The Hubble Telescope is another example of the kind of thing NASA should be doing, and the images produced are far more interesting to ‘young people’ then some Cold War-era replay of the ‘race to the Moon’).

  • Joe Apple

    I would have no problem redirecting a portion of our grotesquely large defense budget towards more peaceful means. I think this would be the only rational way to pay for it.

  • http://www.jessemazer.com Jesse M.

    If only they were planning to do something new and interesting that required a human presence, like building a space elevator on the moon, then I’d be excited…as it is, what can humans do on the moon that robots couldn’t do for a fraction of the cost?

  • JimV

    Can’t argue with those who say the money for a moon colony could be more wisely spent on other things which are needed now … but then I think of all the resources that are outside our gravity well – all that solar energy, the He3 from solar flares that may be collecting in the moon’s south polar craters, more fresh water ice in the rings of Saturn than salt water in our oceans, comet-loads of hydrocarbons, etc. – and I’d like to see us make a start at claiming those resources for the sake of future generations who will need them; and a moon base seems to me to be the best way to make that start.

    There will be lots of challenges, but there may also be exciting solutions. E.g., an article in a recent issue of “Analog” magazine proposes using “high-temperature” (~200 Rankin) super-conductors to create magnetic radiation shields in the bottom of a polar crater.

  • http://www.oligofree.com oligofree

    Better think about blogging & online gaming.. is there a crossing point between that trend and Google, You tube, NASA ambitions?

  • Chastity

    In one among his several excellent popular books, Disturbing the Universe, maybe, Freeman Dyson describes the kinds of very small ( kilograms ) and very smart robots that could be designed to explore our solar system inexpensively and more effectively than humans ever could. It’s interesting to think not in terms of one or two robots but of hundreds or thousands of such rugged explorers peering into every crevice of the solar system and parachuting test tubes back down to us sensibly earthbound scientists. There’s really no argument here: the respective payoffs of manned vs. unmanned exploration are obviously hugely lopsided.

    If the objective is colonization of space, well, then again there is no argument – that of course takes people. But it is my hope space colonization can be retarded for as long as possible, until we can find the wherewithal for solving some of our political and social problems here on earth rather than seeding these monsters throughout the universe.

    Manned missions would offer only cheap political thrills for the unlettered and no inspiration to young people interested in physics – our topic here. Trying to inspire kids with trips to the moon is like trying to lure you theoretical physicists away from your next conference with some circus tickets. They know better and they deserve better, as does physics itself.

    The Internet does not draw kids away from science. It obviously makes science far easier for children to access and learn. I remember hitchhiking to a tiny library in another town several miles away wherein I could behold its single book on calculus. The Internet is nothing but fabulous for science and curious kids.

    In his same book, Dyson tells how the government pays him huge sums of money for his scientific studies from which he draws very sound and deeply considered advice, advice, he says, that the government *never* takes. So it’s All Aboard for Mars!, kids, unless some smarter and better motivated people can take charge of things. Maybe we would do better to find ways for encouraging retired physicists to enter politics (yuk!), and then things might naturally work out better for physics and young physicists.

  • Belizean

    Perhaps the answer to apathy is an even greater boondoggle. The administration should announce the Warp Drive Project.

    Sure, it won’t lead to a warp engine. But it will employ a huge number of physicists, who are bound to make fundamental advances of some sort. And it’s harder to be apathetic about exploring the galaxy. Until, of course, it’s generally realized that it’s not going to happen. But that public realization could take many years.

  • Richard

    I just recalled an article that I had read recently in a local newspaper which suggested helium-3 as a motivation for going back to the moon. I found the archive:

    http://www.madison.com/archives/read.php?ref=/tct/2006/12/23/0612230276.php

    The motivation here is strictly energy and economic in nature, and not science.

  • http://www.pennyhero.net Emily Nashif

    You might be interested in watching some videos that a videographer friend of mine made for the 2006 “2nd Space Exploration Conference”.

    The website isn’t very beautiful, but the short videos are awesome. They really demonstrate some of the mixture of apathy and enthusiasm that “kids” in college feel. Plus they sorta tug at the heartstrings of smart people. :)

    Anyway, here’s a link to the videos themselves: Space Walking

  • kailee

    Although your article was very intriguing, I strongly disagree with several of your opinionated views. I myself am 14 and a freshman in high school. However I am very interested in science and on an advanced academic track in school. I also plan to become a Quantum Physicist after graduating from collage. Several of my friends are also on academic plans and do take an interest in science and the state of Scientific Awareness in the world. I believe that many people assume this generation of teenagers doesn’t take plan ahead for or understand the future, although many of us do. They also do not understand that the typical stereotype for teenagers is evolving. Many of the advanced teenagers are just like other “normal” students. I myself am a cheerleader and basketball player. Most of my friends also participate in several sports and clubs along with other teenagers. However I do agree with your main which states that the population of scientifically aware teenagers is dwindling. Never the less, at this time many kids still take an interest in the universe and how our world is progressing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Kailee, I’m not sure who said that the population of scientifically aware teenagers is dwindling. I said the opposite — young adults are not enthusiastic about the Moon mission, because there’s little point to it, but they might get enthusiastic about real science.

  • http://heroportraits.0nyx.com sam

    No wai! APOD (astronomy picture of the day) via NASA is one thing that keeps me interested in space, and it’s on the web.
    http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html

  • Pingback: Ars Mathematica » Blog Archive » Mars, Chapelle-Style()

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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