That is the question that a colleague of mine posed in response to the horrific events unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq, and Gaza (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Burma, and many other places that have been pushed out of the headlines in the hierarchy of bad news). In essence she was saying: “Time for some perspective. Stories about space sails and black holes are fun, but there comes a time when you have to focus on the real problems right here on Earth.”
I agree, and I disagree completely.
I’ve thought a lot about this question, since it comes up often in my life. I report extensively on topics in physics, space, and astronomy. The people I write about rely heavily on university and government support. They are well aware that, in most cases, their research has no immediate, hard practical benefits, yet they care passionately about their work. I do, too. The reason I feel so strongly is that I agree about the need for perspective, but I think this kind of big-picture science offers exactly the kind of perspective people need–especially in times of trouble.
It is easy to feel like human existence is all about the fight for resources. People squabble over taxes and spending; they battle openly over territory of political and religious control. Things are different in theoretical physics, astronomy, cosmology, and space exploration. Advances in these areas typically require enormous patience and a great deal of collaboration. Sure, there are still disputes (scientists belong to the same species as the rest of us). Sure, there are still battles over resources (funding is never enough). But the very nature of the work forces people in the other direction, toward the more optimistic and constructive ends of human behavior.
One beautiful example: a solar sail, called LightSail-1, being built by the Planetary Society. In 2016, a miniature satellite (CubeSat) will launch aboard a next-generation Falcon Heavy rocket, enter Earth orbit, and then unfurl a 32-square-meter mylar sail. The sail will catch the gentle pressure of solar radiation and will ride on a “wind” of sunlight, just as a sailboat rides on gusts of air. The whole mission is being developed with private money donated by a large collection of space enthusiasts. Once the kinks are worked out, solar sailing will offer a new way to navigate through space for an unlimited duration, using no onboard fuel at all.
Another example: A mind-bending new theory by physicists Carlo Rovelli and Hal Haggard that black holes are not truly black. If an extremely massive star implodes, it will collapse to the very edge of becoming a black hole…but then it will hit a kind of quantum wall. At that point, Rovelli and Haggard propose, the star will bounce back and reverse, turning into a white hole instead: an outward gush of matter and energy. The process would seem instantaneous from the point of view of the collapsing object, but its gravity so thoroughly distorts time that the rebound could take trillions of years from our perspective.
There’s that word again. Perspective. The latest thinking about black holes builds on a century of changing interpretations of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, carried out by thousands of researchers. Einstein didn’t believe black holes could exist at all because they seemed too strange even for his prodigious imagination. Today’s theorists, undaunted, are finding new possibilities hidden in his equations. They are contemplating the universe on the subatomic scale as well as the cosmic scale, analyzing time measured in stretches that are completely alien to human experience. The designers and builders of LightSail-1 are also, in different but parallel ways, barreling past the bounds of conventional thinking. They are looking at new materials, new paths of navigation, new destinations that might soon be within reach.
If there is a path forward for us, one that leads beyond the mentality of divide-and-conquer, this is it. Cosmic thinking does more than activate the human intellect. It connects with human emotions, and with that restless desire to expand. It taps into that deep, reptilian part of the brain that wants more More MORE, and gives it the very ultimate in More: the universe itself. This is the mindset of the Pale Blue Dot, which knows no national boundaries. This is the mindset of collaborative problem solving. This is the mindset of peace rather than war, and it is the mindset that has lifted humanity out of economic (and intellectual) poverty over the last 2,000 years.
I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had with astronomer Alex Wolszczan, who speaks beautifully on this topic. “As you age and get more experience, you recede from things and take a broader perspective. Over time I am less and less concerned about details and more and more concerned about generalities,” he said. “We are governed by evolutionary principles. Everything we do is a struggle for survival, to elevate ourselves above everybody else. When you look at what we do as individuals, as groups, as nations, as political systems, it all boils down to the same thing: You want to squash everybody else.
“It’s not our fault. We didn’t ask to be here. The big question is, Is there a way to break through that? To become something that can exist in the universe the way it is without the permanent danger of getting extinguished? I’m pretty sure we’re going to be replaced by something else if we don’t use our heads. That’s the only way to get off of this evolutionary train.”
Wolszczan studies brown dwarfs and distant planets around dead and dying stars. On one level, it is abstract research. On another, it is exactly the kind of thinking that looks at a grim event like the downing of a Malaysian jet over Ukraine and sees the possibility of transcendent thinking–that sees a future in which we humans become more humane and learn to rise above our evolutionary source material. To me, that is the ultimate in relevant perspective.
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