Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Exploring the Unknown

Landing the Huygens Probe on Saturn’s moon, Titan, demonstrates mankind’s considerable technological prowess. At 900 million miles, this remote landing is the farthest ever for Earth scientists and engineers. Our species has witnessed many great feats in reaching into interstellar space. Being able to safely land instruments in the harsh, reomote environment of Saturn’s moon is one incredible feat that will yield knowledge important to our understanding of the universe.

The entire project is mind-boggling in its difficulty and complexity. Think about delivering and operating via remote control, anything over a great distance and the improbability of this project begins to emerge. Getting equipment into space is simple enough but getting to the outreaches of our solar system is much more difficult. The Cassini probe that delivered the moon lander used a figure eight fly by of both the Moon and Earth to give it momentum toward Saturn in order to conserve fuel and weight on the long voyage. The Cassini mother ship launched the Huygens probe with a seven rpm spin to shoot it like a bullet through Titan’s atmosphere. This is incredible stuff. The civilization that accomplished that landing has reason to be proud.

But when I think about it, 900 million miles is not much in a universe where distances are measured in hundreds of light years (97.8 billion miles). All this effort and our knowledge and experience of the universe is still so very limited. Human civilization on this blue-green planet is so very small in this vast universe. Each human is even smaller and insignificant in the grand scale of the cosmos. The world has just witnessed in the South Asia tsunami our terrible vulnerability to natural forces. A collision with a comet could destroy much of Earth’s life. So could a massive nuclear exchange.

We know much but control little. The engineers and scientists who guided the Cassini and Huygens probes demonstrated how well humans can plan, organize and execute a challenging project but their accomplishment is a unique event, the result of great thought and preparation. In the everyday world thought and preparation are often missing, either by circumstance or artifice; the opportunity to control events is limited and often complicated by un- or poorly anticipated factors.

That thought informs my beliefs and my world view. Because we are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, our affairs, whether among individuals or nations, are relatively small and trivial. In that context, individuals and nations should be humble in relations with others and the natural world. This view recognizes the common humanity we share and the common resources–air, water, forests and the land itself–that give us life.

For this reason, I am a citizen of the world as much as I am a US citizen. As a citizen of the world, I owe others the respect for their humanity and inalienable rights. In turn, I am entitled to similar respect. In the same manner, the various nations to which we pledge allegiance also owe respect to their citizens and those of other nations. That is the ideal world that I envision. It is rooted in the ideals that gave birth to this nation and incorporates the environmental respect of America’s indigenous peoples. With this world view, the Bush Administration is a colossal disaster.

Each of us lives on Earth as a member of many communitiesConsequences for our afterlife notwithstanding, we owe these communities respect in how we live among them. Respecting human dignity, economic rights and environmental integrity as part and parcel of living responsibly with other human beings. I know that much of what I do is self-centered, doing the things that sustain my life and add interest to my existence. But I have long recognized the importance of contributing to the society that sustains me. At various times, I have donated substantially to charities, volunteered in political campaigns, built and maintained hiking trails, volunteered at an inner city school. I served in the military in part because it was my civic duty. Last year I volunteered extensively for the Kerry campaign because I sincerely believe that George W. Bush is a disaster for America and the world.

That’s long way from celebrating the landing of the Huygens probe. From space exploration to introspection. But the journeys are similar in that they are virtually infinite. And both are important. In looking into the vast unknown beyond this planet, I see how little I know and how important that I live at the expense of no other.


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