“How Can You Talk About Space Exploration at a Time Like This?”

By Corey S. Powell | July 18, 2014 1:48 pm

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.”

LightSail-1 will surf on sunlight: not a distraction, but a way forward for humanity.

LightSail-1 will surf on sunlight: not a distraction, but a way forward for humanity. (Credit: Josh Spradling/the Planetary Society)

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • http://explainingindia.blogspot.in/ Sachi Mohanty

    Yes. Agree entirely. Sean Carroll’s “Meaning of Life” (available on YouTube too) has some of these same thoughts as well about how it is up to us to create meaning.

    In a world where news travels at the speed of light, we get the sense that everyday, there is more tragedy happening around the world.

    But as Steven Pinker has showed in his book, things are getting better in so many ways: whether you consider wars and the number of dead in wars and in disease and murders and so on.

    Consider the fact that in the 20th century, the most ‘advanced’ nations on Earth fought two meaningless wars over … what? nationalism? or something that led to a mutual killing spree with a final toll of … 50 million? 100 million?

    Sometimes when I see the still extant passion for religion among various peoples of the world in 2014, I fear that we may see similar large scale wars in the less developed parts of the world.

    Say, India and Pakistan.

    Morbid as it may sound, here is a factual thought: even if 50 million die in ‘a’ war (or wars) in this century, hey, that’s a small fraction of the 7,000 million plus humans who live on this planet.

    Lastly, wars or no wars, here’s some perspective if we bother to even think on timescales of just one hundred years (no need to think about the Niagara Falls will disappear over tens of thousands of years or how the constellations will cease to exist in a hundred thousand years or how the continents will join again in millions of years and other fascinating stuff that happen over geological timescales of millions of years) :—

    A fantastic global catastrophe … a ‘global killer’ … is going to KILL US ALL (that is more than seven billion fatalities) in JUST THE NEXT ONE HUNDRED YEARS.

    How about that!

    • coreyspowell

      Nicely said. I had a provocative exchange with Wolszczan in which I asked him if he thought people would still be around in 1,000 years. He said no. I was surprised, and asked, what about 100 years? He paused. “100 years? No, I don’t think so.”

      Wolszczan thinks we are at a critical juncture, in which our technology and education will determine whether we survive or succumb to our evolutionary impulses. But for all the gloom of his reply, a moment later he was optimistic that we will find a way out–or that if we don’t here, some other intelligent species will on some other planet.

      • http://explainingindia.blogspot.in/ Sachi Mohanty

        Sagan had those same fears about humans being the cause for their own extinction.

        That we appear to be reprising the very same problems that led to the millions dead in the 20th century’s two world wars makes it seem that Sagan’s worries cannot be dismissed entirely out of hand.

        I think Hawking too mentioned the likelihood of extinction in the next century or two.

        I think that is the critical time period: our ‘technological adolescence.’

        Once we become a multi-planet species and become more or less cyborgs, at least we can be assured that extinction on one planet won’t mean total extinction of humanity.

        Also, with enough fusing of biology and technology, the pointless obsessing over skin color, religion and other such trivialities may finally end.

        Here’s to hope!

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    The economic, effective, and planet-scale solution for humanity’s major problems is to let people die of their own beliefs. Skinning the able to gorge the lame, halt, dim-witted, addicted, perverse, diverse, deserving, delusional, and proven unable, plus religious and compassionate political classes, with preening academic intellectual vacuity and halcyon ephemerides of MBA omniscience gets us to exactly where we are now.

    Non tamen solam intendit interiorem, immo interior nulla est, nisi foris operetur varias carnis mortificationes.” The meek shall inherit the Earth, the Gifted shall conquer the stars.

    • babby660

      Warning: “Idiotocracy” ahead. That’s a movie in which a couple of 21st Century goof-offs manage to save the world from itself in 2505. Well worth watching!

  • JBranch

    Corey Powell has written an admirable, large-scale answer to the question posed by his colleague. But there’s a potential problem: I don’t think the rest of mankind is any more likely to adopt “transcendent thinking” and a cosmic perspective than the scientists are to adopt the narrow, us-versus-them thinking of those fatally combative rivals in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It’s fine to believe that your way is the best way forward for mankind, but many of those who have taken up arms in some other cause believe the same thing. How are you going to persuade them that you’re right and they’re not?

    For what it’s worth, I can see some simpler responses to the question in the headline. If you believe in the value of your work, as Corey Powell clearly does, what sense would it make to set that work aside? What good would that do? And what should Powell and those he writes about do instead? Surely it’s better for them if they stick to their work. And probably—from my point of view, certainly—it’s better for the rest of us as well.

    This line of thinking has the advantage of being applicable to plumbers and postmen and pretty much everyone else short of the combatants themselves and those who cheer them on. I no more want the power company to stop running the generators so they can fret over death and destruction that they can’t help than I want Corey Powell and the people he writes about to turn away from their chosen work. To reverse a 60s expression, if you’re not part of the problem, you may be part of the solution.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    So Its probably not worth pointing out but you wrote a serious article about exploring space using a sheet. If its all about perspective try taking a purely conscious one and perhaps you will see that we live in a primitive time in human history. Space exploration should be glorified(skip the sails) and seen as the destiny of the human race.

  • https://www.facebook.com/MikeLorrey4NHLeg mikelorrey

    How can we NOT think about space travel? It is clear that we need to get off this rock ASAP before the idiots destroy us all.

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  • Marta Fernandes

    “How can you talk about space exploration at a time like this?”

    In what way is it that ONLY talking about the terrible events going on in the world right now is going to change anything?

  • http://chcmass.com/ Richard Johnson

    for taking the time to talk about this, I feel strongly about it and really
    like mastering more on this subject. If feasible, as you acquire experience,
    would you mind updating your blog with much more information and facts? By the
    way, more space and astronomy related material exists at http://www.nanowerk.com/ This site is also more resourceful with
    science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, space and astronomy related latest inventions and news.

  • Greg Hensley

    Statements like these completely back up the reasons for Space Exploration. Think about it. If we were to Stop Science due to fact of Human Problems on Earth. Then we would still be living without Electricity, Cars, Airplanes and Everything we have today. Can anyone here reading this tell me a time in just their life when Not a single War was happening on Earth? Or a time when some particular race of Humans weren’t being abused? Of-course Not. I believe that its so simple to understand that we have a limited time here on Earth. And if we don’t expand to other worldly bodies then we are the next “Great Extinction”.


Out There

Notes from the far edge of space, astronomy, and physics.

About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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