Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Best Explorer


I hate to disagree with Stephen Hawking and my brother Matt in the same week, but sometimes events force my hand.

It's not that I never disagree with either of them. I disagree with both of them lots of times. For example, I disagree with my brother Matt about whether he should post online a video of himself trying to learn to surf, indoors, and failing. I presume that he fails hilariously, and maybe painfully, and I want him to show me the video and put it online. But he won't, and I disagree with that choice.

I disagree with Stephen Hawking on other subjects. Like dark matter. Stephen Hawking apparently believes that "dark matter" is real. "Dark Matter" is what physicist call "all the stuff they can't explain," and the theory of dark matter can be explained this way: "There's a bunch of stuff out there that that we can't see, test, find, touch, or in any way measure or comprehend, but we need it to explain all the theories we have, so we'll just say it exists."

"Dark matter" could also be called the "Not Me" of Physics -- as in Family Circus, when "Not Me" was used to explain how a lamp got broken. Like "Dark Matter," "Not Me" was an invisible culprit who conveniently explained all matter of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. "Not Me" was preferable to being spanked, and "Dark Matter" is preferable, apparently, to "actually knowing stuff."

I also disagree with Stephen Hawking about whether we'd have Whoppers if Columbus hadn't ever lived, although I get his point he was trying to make, and so, philosophically, at least, Stephen Hawking and I were on the same page even as I was disagreeing with him and my brother Matt this weekend.

The disagreement arose when I mentioned that NASA was discontinuing the space shuttle program and Matt said that was good because space exploration was a boondoggle. (My word, not his. But he meant to say boondoggle.)

That got me upset, and so I said this:

Space exploration is the most important thing mankind can be doing. In the entire pantheon of things that man could spend his time on, exploration is far and away the best and highest calling we could engage in.

Actually, what I said was more along the lines of You're an idiot. But I meant to make that speech about "best and highest callings" and all that.

We then debated, briefly, whether space exploration had any benefits, and then whether exploration at all had any benefits, and I was (and am) astounded that anyone anywhere could think that there are no benefits to exploring.

That's when my disagreement with Stephen Hawking came in. Stephen has said that we wouldn't have Big Macs or Kentucky Fried Chicken if Columbus hadn't been sent by Spanish royalty to sail off the edge of the world. I disagree with that specific statement. I suspect he meant it as a joking reference to how progress flows from exploration, and we're both right that progress does, in fact, flow from exploration, but it's silly and reductive thinking to say that we would not have come up with fast food if Europeans never found the Americas.

("Silly and reductive thinking" being what passes for "science" these days, though, I suppose I should not hope for better, even from Stephen Hawking.)

But in principal, like I said, Stephen and I were on the same page, and both are firmly opposed to Matt's way of thinking. Exploration is important -- and so important that it should be the number one priority of countries in the world right now. Yes, even in the midst of an economic crisis, even in the very beginnings of the American Idol voting scandal, even in a time when "Baconnaise" is not yet available worldwide, we should be exploring and exploring and exploring.

This is not a nuts-and-bolts lecture on how "exploring" creates jobs and benefits the economy in the short and long term. Those things are all true -- and jobs building space stations and satellites and new interplanetary rockets, plus all the support structures that they need are high-tech and long-lasting, as well as being easily as valuable as jobs building libraries in Arkansas.

But looking at the basic realities of the situation, as much as we want to do that these days, is not what exploration is all about. Exploration is all about expanding human thoughts and endeavors into unforeseen possiblities, and that's why it's so valuable, and so important -- more important than any other thing any human being could be doing.

Yes, more important even than constantly monitoring Brett Favre's status as a football player.

Well, as important, let's say.

Yes, exploration brings tangible benefits almost immediately: it employs people and requires the production of goods and services that provide spin-offs into the mass market. In that way, exploring is kind of like World War II: it helps fire up an economy, or could if people understood it that way, instead of saying it's a boondoggle (or meaning to say that.)

But more importantly, exploration opens up people's minds, and opens up their world. It creates new, boundless possibilities that engender new ways of thinking about the world and its people and its societies.

Consider some very very good explorers and their effects on the world. (We're not to The Best Explorer, yet, but we'll get there.)

Any survey of explorers has to start with Christopher Columbus, a man who has in recent years been the focus more of criticism than of praise. I'm going to go back to praising him. (I'm not ignoring the bad stuff. I'm just not focusing on it for now, okay?) Columbus didn't just stumble across America and open up a New World for exploration and exploitation. Columbus did far, far more than that. Remember how I phrased his voyage before: sent by Spanish royalty to sail off the edge of the world. That's what they thought would really happen, back then. Everyone, or almost everyone, in the world thought that Europe and Asia and Africa were all the land that existed, and that if you sailed off away from those things, you'd fall out into space.

But Columbus did just that: He sailed away from the world we knew and into the unknown. It's easy to sit here today and think Well, sure, but their beliefs were ridiculous, and also Columbus thought the world was round. Maybe that's true. Maybe Columbus did think the world was round, was pretty convinced, in fact, that it was round. It still took a phenomenal amount of bravery to sail off and prove it, didn't it?

I once went bungee jumping. I watched about 10 people before me go up and go off the ledge and bounce around and then get lowered down. I knew that the thing was safe, that the cords wouldn't break, that the harness would hold. But I was still about as scared as I'd ever been when I was strapped into the harness and ready to drop off the ledge.

Columbus showed us, as humans, that we could challenge popular beliefs and face not just death, but Unknown Scary Consequences That Might Be Worse Than Death. Who knew what might happen if you did fall off the edge of the world? Maybe you'd just fall forever until you died of thirst or starvation. Maybe you'd fall to Hell. Maybe you'd pass into some other dimension where sentient versions of inanimate objects existed and you'd find yourself the slave puppet of a Barcalounger. Any of those fates could have awaited Columbus - but he went ahead and sailed off, anyway.

Think, too, about Admiral Robert Peary, the first man to reach the North Pole -- one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, and a place that exists only temporarily. Unlike Antarctica and the South Pole, the North Pole is made up of ice, not land, so the North Pole sits, unsteadily, in our imaginations on a shelf of material that could disappear into the water underneath it. Peary braved conditions that are inconceivable to those of us who complain that 55 degrees is chilly, that are unimaginable to a society of people who insist that the Superbowl be played indoors so that we can be comfortable sitting in our corporate luxury boxes.

Peary proved that humans can go anywhere -- regardless of how inhospitable or unstable the area may seem to be. Nearly-Absolute-Zero temperatures and a landscape that has no stable features and changes from day to day? Bring it on.

Lewis and Clark, too, deserve mentioning, because they mapped the extent of an unknown and previously unfathomable continent, a vast expanse of land that dwarfed other land masses not just in size, but in emptiness. Europe -- smaller than North America -- was crowded with people and cities and cobblestones by the time Lewis & Clark set off into the wilderness of the American continent. At the time, I imagine, one couldn't travel more than a day or two in Europe without running into signs of civilization -- a city or town or farm or road or something -- and those signs of civilization would serve as fences of the mind, blocking in thoughts and preventing the expansion of possibilities.

North America, though, was largely uninhabited. Native American tribes existed here and there, but they didn't do as much cultivation and city building as the Europeans, and they left little to no impact on many places they lived or had lived.

Picture, in your mind, a clean white sheet of paper in a typewriter. Or a blank canvas on an easel. Or an unmarked set of musical staves. Those empty vessels could become anything. Anything you want them to be. A science-fiction story. The Great American Novel. "Starry Night," or a portrait of your mother. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A catchy jingle. Anything.

Lewis and Clark explored one of the greatest (nearly) blank canvases ever seen by humans: a continent that had everything available to it, but which hadn't been marked up, written down, folded bended mutilated and spindled yet. Lewis and Clark came back and told the world of the existence of a seemingly-boundless area just waiting to be filled in, filled in with houses and monuments and roads and train tracks and factories and playgrounds and filled in with people who would make things, do things, go places. Lewis and Clark gave the human race a blank piece of paper and said Make something.


That's what exploring does. It doesn't just give us Tang and good-jobs-at-good-wages. It gives us a future, a challenge. Exploring -- finding out what's beyond the next bend, over the next ridge, across the ocean -- opens the gates and lets the horses of our imaginations run free: free to challenge our beliefs and face our fears and test our limits and create something new and better.

There's lots of places left on Earth to explore, and we should be exploring those. But space... ah, space -- the infinite! The endless! The multiplicitous nature of space, with its billions of miles to cross and billions of stars to orbit and billions of planets to fly to and land on and walk around. Space is all those things that have come before us, and new, at the same time.

Outer space is our fears and beliefs challenged: Is the Universe infinite? How does that work? What happens if we just keep on going? Are there black holes and alien cultures waiting for us?

Outer space is the most hostile of environments, lacking everything we take for granted: no heat. No air. No gravity. All our constant companions from birth to death -- gone. Left behind.

Outer space is the ultimate blank canvas. There are countless asteroids and planets and stars and other constructs awaiting us, with landscapes we've never scene and elements we haven't thought of yet and life forms that will boggle our collective consciousness, opening door after door after door in our imaginations, freeing our minds to roam even further than our bodies could go. Who knows what progress we will make, what inventions we will invent, what cures we will devise, what art we will create, when we have seen, with our own eyes instead of a picture, a binary star, a comet crashing soundlessly by, when we have walked on a planet surrounded by rings instead of a solitary moon?

Exploration, and specifically exploring outer space, is far from a waste of time. It is absolutely necessary to the future of humankind, because only through constantly exploring, constantly pushing our boundaries, constantly challenging ourselves, can we continue to improve more than incrementally. Progress will always happen: We would eventually have found a way to mass-market fried chicken, whether or not we crossed the Atlantic in tiny boats. But progress will not happen quickly enough to matter unless we force the issue by forcing ourselves to go ever higher, ever further.

And that's how I've selected The Best Explorer: by asking myself: who is most qualified to demonstrate, to the human race, the importance of exploration for exploration's sake? Who is The Best person to hold up to the world and say "Look at this person and what this person has achieved! Let us emulate this person!"

Once I phrased the question that way, the answer was easy. The Best Explorer is:

You.

If you accept the challenge, that is. You can lead the human race onwards and upwards. And you should. Whether you do that by yourself getting on a spaceship and flying off to Mars someday, or by helping make sure that someone else does, we're all relying on you to keep us moving into the future.



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1 comment:

Husbands Anonymous said...

I feel more explorative already. *pith helmet on*
Weird: I see you follow Fiona Zerbst- she's a friend of Neen's- they went to school and university together.
Small world.