March 17, 2014

JARA | On Cosmos, Innovation and Humanity

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Who are we? Why are we here? What is our role in the grand scheme of the universe? These are questions that have motivated and inspired scientists for centuries, despite our lackluster chances of ever answering them. Or at least, they used to.

Last Sunday, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” premiered on Fox and National Geographic to over 14 million live viewers. Hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos is a reboot of a series of a similar name that aired in 1980, then hosted by Cornell professor Carl Sagan.  Tyson has made clear that the show is not meant to be simply a sequel to the original Cosmos; he aims to reinvigorate the public with the same spirit of discovery that once seemed to be a natural characteristic of the American way of life.

It’s no secret that the United States’ competitiveness in math and science has declined in recent decades. The United States simply is not the world leader in innovation that it used to be, though there are many that have dedicated themselves to reversing this trend. Tyson is at the forefront of scientists and engineers like Bill Nye and Michio Kaku leading the charge to make science mainstream again, and it seems to be working. Science and science fiction media are growing and continue to grow in popularity — just ask the writers of The Big Bang Theory.

There are many who would ask, “Why does it matter? Does the United States really need to innovate better than everyone else?” Tyson would likely argue, and I’d be inclined to agree, that’s it not a matter of being number one so we can puff our chests and congratulate ourselves on how great we are.  Rather, it’s a matter of teaching the children of today, the engineers and physicists and doctors of tomorrow, that they belong to something much greater than themselves, a grand story that traverses thousands of years and billions of lives, but that recognizes the significance of each and every character that chooses to play a role. That innovation is more than just a competition to build the cheapest parts, the fastest planes, or the most efficient engines, it’s a quest to leave our species better off than when we found it. Tyson’s quest is to instill in others the same thirst for knowledge and discovery that captured him, so that while others may learn more about the vast and intricate world that surrounds us, we may learn more about ourselves.

Tyson closed the first episode of Cosmos with a brief story. He recounted how Carl Sagan, the world’s most famous astronomer and Tyson’s inspiration, personally invited him up to Ithaca to spend a Saturday touring Cornell’s labs. What struck him more than anything else was the warmth with which Sagan welcomed him, and that when Sagan dropped him off at the bus stop to return home, he left Tyson with his home phone number, and said, “If the bus doesn’t come, call me. Spend the night with my family.” Meeting with Carl Sagan not only confirmed his desire to be a scientist; it taught Tyson exactly what kind of person he wanted to be.

The nihilist in me wants to ask, “Why does this matter? Any of this – our lives, our hopes and dreams, our loves, fears, and aspirations. What significance could they possibly have when compared to the vastness of the universe?” We reside on a speck of dust, a lonely pebble revolving around a star amongst hundreds of billions within our galaxy, amongst hundreds of billions of galaxies within the observable universe. It’s easy to convince ourselves of our own insignificance.  But Sagan knew better. And I’ll leave it to him to answer:

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

It’s clear to me that Cosmos is teaching us, in more ways than one, what it truly means to be human.