“To the Exoplanets”
I don’t quite recall exactly how this phrased first popped into my head, but it has a fairly important meaning behind it.
More and more planets orbiting stars across our galaxy have been discovered in recent years*, and statistics point to the possibly of a few earth-like planets among the many more estimated to exist. Every once in a while you’ll hear the dreamy Sagan-esque proposal that one day we might send probes – and eventually even people – to these impossibly far away places. By all accounts, exoplanets seem to be the next exciting phase of space exploration.
To quickly explain what I mean by “Sagan-esque,” and to add some relevant illustration to what I’m going to talk about here, take a couple to watch this wonderful remix of quotes from Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Then, think about the rest of this post in the context of this sort of attitude:
So, that’s cool. Space exploration is all interesting and stuff. But really it’s more than that, as is implied in the aforementioned Carl Sagan video. Over the course of human history, our species has gone from quietly surviving for unrecorded millenia to becoming the most pervasive and uniquely creative animals to ever exist on earth (at least, as far as all evidence suggests). We’ve gone from stick-figure depictions of Paleolithic survival scribbled on cave walls, to the ubiquity of high-quality digital information riding on electromagnetic waves across the planet. We’ve gone from hunting and foraging for scarce food, to squeezing a cornucopia of essential nutrients into pills the size of peanut. From travelling by foot and wooden chariots to boats and automobiles, from automobiles to flying at 32,000 feet above the earth, from flying between states and countries to walking on the moon – we’ve come a long way.
I could go on, but I’m sure you can think of plenty more examples too. Basically, as the Astronomer Jill Tarter said so precisely, the point is this: “The story of humans is the story of ideas that shine light into dark corners.”
The story of humans is the story of ideas.
Isn’t that a beautiful way to think of human progress? And it’s not just about human progress in terms of technological advancements, though that is certainly the most obvious and immediate way to look at it. Technological (including medical) advance is just the surface of the story. This story has deeper themes and motifs that point to the mystery of our existence and our collective journey through the labyrinth of sentience. The development of social interaction and the mores that govern it, the growth and pervasive influence of religion and spirituality, the centuries-long efforts to overcome xenophobic violence and hatred, the complicated psychology of the brain that operates every moment of each individual life – all are threads in the tapestry of what it means to be human.
Of course, it can’t be overlooked that there are the parts of human nature that mar the beautiful story. For all of our progress and creativity, we have spent equal amounts of time engaged in bloody warfare and violence against each other. The Holocaust, slavery, atoms bombs, child abuse, corruption… The exploration of our self-inflicted horrors could fill a dedicated blog with unique posts every day for centuries. Then there’s the innocent terror of nature in the form of disease and disasters, which we can’t always escape. Human progress has largely been the result of responding to such ills with unwavering passion and zealously meticulous analysis.
That passion and analysis finds its inspiration in the understanding and acceptance of others. Via empathy, people over time have learned to realize that every human is as sentient and valuable as every other human. That particular epiphany has been absolutely integral in addressing the problems of world – although it has been a slow, ongoing process of truly embracing it. The ability to truly express compassion and understanding for other people, and the openness to learn about other cultures and perspectives with patience, is an indispensable factor. The history of civil rights, medical care, and public education are just a few concrete examples of empathy playing its role in the form of people helping other people live better lives. The myriad troubles of current world events show where it is still lacking.
Coupled with that is the universal puzzling over why and how we are here. You know the questions. Every time you look with squinted eyes at the stars in the sky and wonder at your place in the universe, you are repeating the most instinctual of human habits. That compelling wonderment has fueled religions in every culture, and in turn fueled doubt in those same religions. The impetus for our human story is the unstoppable curiosity that drives everything from philosophy and science to fearless exploration.
And that’s where it all ties in: curiosity and exploration. Of all the various aspects of our human story, those two have served as a catalyst to push us forward, outward, into the caves and across the oceans and into the sky. It caused us to look at the earth around us and ask questions, and it inspired us to seek understanding of different people and unfamiliar cultures , which stimulated the growth of empathy and its effect on progress. It brought us down from the trees and all the way to the moon. And, now, to the exoplanets.
And that is what the title means, and it is the background inspiration for what’s likely to end up in this blog. I think about these topics every day. What does it mean to be human? How can the world become a better place? How does our past affect our present? The possible questions, along with the nuanced attempts to answer them, are endless. History, sociology, philosophy, et cetera… it’s all fascinating. The more practical manifestation of those concepts include (but are not limited to) human rights, social connection, personal virtue, and the spread of compassion. I don’t pretend to be an expert on any of those subjects (because, well… I’m not), but the more I wonder, the more I learn, and that’s the only way to begin figuring it out.
- NASA Confirms the Existence of 715 New Exoplanets
- Extrasolar Planets – The Planetary Society
- Exoplanets: Worlds Beyond our Solar System – Space.com
- NASA Exoplanet Archive – CalTech
- The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog – University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo