Curtain Raiser

There Is More to It, Colltalers

The past week was an exciting one for those of us whose important chunks of childhood were spent laying on the backyard, dreaming of stars. NASA announced that it’s discovered another solar system, a mere 40-light-years away, with not one but seven Earth-like planets.
Somehow, though, the announcement failed to produce its due impact, either because other, arguably more urgent news are in need of our undivided attention right now, or we have become too jaded to care about space. But we shouldn’t. Now more than ever, science matters.
It’s yet another instance when the ‘staying power’ of scientific breakthroughs is not enough to dislodge, even momentarily, the onslaught of fake and celebrity news that these days we call, well, news. And another opportunity to start a public debate over our future is lost.
In the prime real estate of broadcast time – which is constitutionally granted by the American people to the media so to serve the public interest – there’s little room for public interest. And learning about even the most distant worlds is to everyone’s benefit, even if not for reasons suggested by the two cute but ultimately shallow questions the media always ask: could we live there? and, will there be aliens?
There’s nothing wrong about asking and trying to answer these questions. That is, if they’d come near the bottom of a long list of way more relevant doubts humankind has to respond in order to survive; not on Mars, the Moon, Pluto or somewhere out there, but here, on Terra.
The 7-planet system, spotted by the Spitzer Space Telescope and called by the acronym Trappist-1, gravitates around a much-smaller-than-the sun, ultra-cool dwarf star. That compensates for their position, closer to their star than our own rock and its companions in the solar system are of ours. For despite the different distances, their location allows for warm weather and liquid water, a tenet in the search for life.
That’s what the scientific community is interested on. Not rushing humans on an technologically impossible trek, but understanding how life spreads, so to better preserve ours. We may

eventually send a mission there, but much can be done right here and now, in less than 40 years.
Perhaps one of the sources of our recurrent confusion about why and what we’re trying to learn about life, the universe, and everything, to quote the late Douglas Adams, may be traced back to the origins of the space age. For it was, at least initially, a by-product of the then more relevant weapons race with the Soviet Union, and all other ramifications the Cold War imposed on U.S. geopolitical priorities.
Nevertheless, the moment the Sputnik was aloft, while American intelligence scrambled to respond to the threat of space domination by the Soviets, people all over the world became enthralled with something else entirely: the realization that we can touch the vastness of what’s out there, and since they’ve mentioned, what’s really out there? It’s one of those quests that will outlast civilization, but still worth pursuing.
With America joining in, space turned into a new brand of hope, and not the unlimited weapons storage place the military were expecting it to be. It was time for the space adventure to occupy its proper mythical seat among the most ancient, and treasured, dreams of mankind.
We finally had a shot at our innate aspiration of one day be one with heavenly bodies, and not bound by limitations of our physicality. Just as visionaries, philosophers, mystics, artists, and sci-fi writers, had envisioned. More than flying, we could actually inhabit the great beyond.
It was a dream, and as such, it was not to last, of course. Some say that even setting up material goals, meaning lands to conquer, betrayed the very idea of space being the realm of winged creatures and immensity. Perhaps. But who could blame JFK for setting the nation alighted with his 1961 speech? And if we hadn’t decided to reach for the Moon, would we have achieved the so much more we did by trying it?
Above all, and not trying to shoot you down with a bad pun, the dream of reaching the stars equates to the need to dream, period. History is littered with failed utopias, that looked good on paper, but lacked, or grew weary, of this other side of being human, aside being a morally responsible citizen: the need for air and time and space to waste in reverie every once in a while, lest life becomes too unbearably boring.
It’s not at all surprising that even progressive segments are again questioning the validity of spending money in space exploration, or on NASA, whose stated purpose is expanding our knowledge of life, in all forms and under any conditions, on Earth, deep within the body, and out there, among distant galaxies. They argue, with some reason, that instead, we should be investing on preventing climate change, for one.
But guess which government agency was among the first to sound the global warming alarm, even before the EPA had been created? And which one, apart from the Dept. of Energy, may have the biggest number of scientists on its payroll? Well, at least before Jan. 21, 2017.
We have so many challenges and social issues needing to be urgently addressed, that we wind up forgetting that much of their solution is to increase funding for scientific research in all areas, specially one that gave us so much hope. And, yes, the microwave oven and iPhone too.
We forget that science and free, accessible education both took dramatic dives since that time when presidents had vision. And we tend to overlook the value of dreaming about the unresolvable future, too, to which the infinite space above us is the best metaphorical example.
As promised, we wrote a whole post without mentioning you-know-who (and it’s just as well, given the name of this new planetary system). Yes, we’re all entitled to lift our heads, and take in the wonder of what’s around us with a deep breath. No warrior would show up for battle, without periodically allowing the experience of being present right now, to be all that matters. Hope is in the now. Have a great one. WC

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