As we prepare for the start of the semester, my sophomore brother is going to take BIOEE 1540: Introductory Oceanography taught by Professor Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric science. I took the course my sophomore year as well, right in the middle of the pandemic where the course was fully virtual. Ask any Cornellian who has taken the course and hundreds if not thousands of them, including myself, will tell you how amazing the content, professor and impact of the course is. Over a thousand students each semester take oceanography for a reason, and the course remains as spectacular now as it did when it started years ago.
Similarly, hundreds of students take ASTRO 1101: From New Worlds to Black Holes every semester; Bill Nye ‘73 even comes back every year to check in on the class. Similar to oceanography, this introductory astronomy course inspires students to do more than look up at the stars but understand what lies amongst them as well.
The saying that humans have explored more of space than the oceans remains fascinating, as anyone who has taken intro oceanography can tell you that we have explored very little of our seas. Yes, we know how deep certain parts are and what the ground shapes up to due to sonar, but fewer humans have traversed the deepest parts of the Mariana Trench than humans who have been to space. So why have we spent so little time exploring the deep blues compared to the deep beyond?
The short answer is money. While getting to space certainly remains difficult, the funding that NASA receives outpaces NOAA by billions of dollars every year. In addition, the ocean’s immense pressure and complete darkness make capturing photos that excite the public much more difficult to encourage Congress to spend more money. Pictures from the new Webb telescope certainly inspire further exploration of the cosmos. We should be finding ways to see the secrets right across the shore and glimpse into the beauties and horrors of the ocean.
We have searched for life in space but the uniqueness and mind-bending life in the oceans ought to be equally as exciting to learn of. Creatures like the glass octopus and phantom jellyfish are only the beginning of a collective of terrifying sea dwellers. Less scary, baby octopi and crustaceans chilling on the ocean floor might have cuter cousins we will never find out about without exploring deeper. The quest for extraterrestrial life might appear to be the best path toward funky organisms, but century-old beings live in our oceans, waiting to be discovered.
I believe space’s images to be captivating; I believe the oceans’ creatures to be fascinating. I want to see more of space and more of the seas. The federal government pours trillions of dollars into bureaucratic agencies that oversee everything from Medicare to infrastructure to transportation and more. While not necessarily life-saving or drastically economically productive agencies, NOAA receives $5.4 billion in funding; NASA receives $22,3 billion. I can only imagine what increases in both of their budgets could produce not just for the United States but the whole world.
What advocacy power do we as Cornell students hold in convincing the federal government to increase both space and sea exploration? Realistically, not very much. But learning about how amazing the oceans are is not as easily accessible as seeing the spectacular images of space that we have from the Hubble and now the Webb. The most recognizable phrase from Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan was how in the picture of Earth taken from Voyager 1, we are “a pale blue dot” among the vastness of the universe. Who knows what dots we could find in the ocean depths and what dots we will continue to find in space as we explore beyond our lands. But until then, all Americans can enjoy the images released by the Webb Telescope each week and all Cornellians can learn about our enchanting universe in BIOEE 1540 and ASTRO 1101.
Patrick J. Mehler ‘23 (he/him) is a rising senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Mehl-Man Delivers runs intermittently this summer.