An Astronomical Conversation

Contributed by
Mar 17, 2015
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On Feb. 26, 2015, I had the pleasure of being a guest at the Florida Institute of Technology, to speak on stage with my friend and astronomer Hakeem Oluseyi. Hakeem is a professor there, and the idea was to have a public discussion about current topics in astronomy—not so much a talk by one person, but more of a guided conversation between two friends. It was moderated by FIT astronomer Dan Batcheldor.

We talked about the weird plumes or clouds seen in the upper atmosphere of Mars, a recent spate of fireballs seen across the country, and also the retraction of the BICEP2 observatory claim of seeing direct evidence of cosmic inflation. That was the idea, at least; of course given two garrulous astronomers who love astronomy and science, the talk was pretty free-range. We wandered a bit.

The entire talk (including the Q&A afterward) is available for your eyeballs:

Of all that, my favorite part is at the 1:26:30 mark, when two young girls (around 10 years old, maybe younger), asked a question I hear a lot: Why are we spending money on space when we have so many problems here on Earth? This is a very common question, and one that seems like a natural one, but it’s based on a false premise. Actually, two: One is that there isn’t enough money to do both, when in fact there is (we just choose to waste a lot of it on things that are not helping and which in fact are hurting us)

But the other false premise is that the money we spend on space doesn’t help us here on Earth. But the real case is that money we spend on space has a direct effect on everyone on Earth! It helps develop new technology with wide-ranging use, it stimulates the economy, and it helps us better understand our planet—the only one we have, and one on which we’re having a vast and profound impact.

I think it also does something intangible but also crucial: It inspires us. The beauty, the mystery, the sense of adventure … these are all things that tickle the backs of our brains, give us a sense of being alive, tell us of things greater than ourselves.

Humans could live our entire lives eating bland food, drudging through uncompelling work, plodding along one foot after another, our heads hung down and looking only as far forward as the next footstep.

Space exploration lifts our heads up. It shows us the sky, the stars, the Universe, an entire cosmos just begging us to learn more about it.

Humans are capable of greater things. Every once in a while, we just need to look up and be reminded of that.