I have no particular interest in politics nor economics; they are mere foundations for what I think is important; innovation and education.
But, sadly, innovation is the slave to politics and economics, and so it must be addressed.
My special interest falls beyond terrestrial innovation, I’m particularly interested in the cosmos, in space; but exploring the cosmos is both expensive and vastly misunderstood by the great unwashed and under-educated masses. My latest article Let’s Talk Supernova illustrates this point as it caused quite a furor from those who would rather not risk progress by learn something new.
And this brings me to today’s oberfation: Any headline detailing the budgetary spend on space cannot go by; and neither will this essay; without the obligatory hysterical knee-jerk howl of indignation from the “save the starving” irrational set.
I call them irrational for this reason:
They do their larynx a damage from sustained protestation at the projected price of, say, the SKA; a science instrument that will multiply mankind’s resolution of the cosmos not by the paltry 10x that Kepler’s telescope achieved, but by 10,000 times; all for a mere $2,5-billion… While howling about investment into progress, they’ll simultaneously ply the kids with a treat on Halloween.
Space spending and Halloween; what’s the connection here?
Well – their howl will always be an appeal to more food rather than science; a call heeded for Somalia’s starving 20-something years ago, and a fine and strapping bunch of gun-totting sailors they turned out to be around the Horn of Africa today… but I digress.
The SKA will explode our knowledge base in ways that are hard to conceive of – while the results of Halloween are simply fatter kids with more tooth decay – and the bill for just one sweetie-binge-night in the US? One night of guzzling? $2-billion.
The SKA will take 10-years to build, cause untold new technologies to be developed (that will find their way into your life – from medical to entertainment to who-know-what) and bring a vast pool of scientific knowledge here, to Africa, to the very cradle of mankind. I can become almost weepy at the thought.
Meanwhile, the same 10-years of Halloween will result in not $2,5-bn, but $20-billion invested in tooth decay and obesity (hey, but the superstitious can at least get a thrill).
So – if you want to save the starving, send them your kid’s sweets and leave investment into technology the hell alone.
But, investments into the likes of the SKA, CERN/Hadron Collider, Kepler, Hubble, W-Map and other initiatives do a lot more than deliver what they seem to deliver – it gives us all a focus us on a future; a focus that as a species we have lost. It brings back the heady days of the 60’s when every headline carried a new frontier of space conquered. It drives the lust in kids to become engineers and scientists; and that is what is needed to put education right; that lust makes up for poor teaching, low discipline, lack investment into education in ways that are hard to factor. The lust to learn – when every headline screams at you about progress rather than stagnation, is the tonic we need.
I was thinking about these things, as I do, and conducting some searches, when I happened upon a fabulously impassioned address given to a group of eminent persons (that’s a click up in IQ from you and me) by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – one of the world’s leading astrophysicist and host of the forthcoming follow up to Carl Sagan’s 1980’s blockbuster TV Series, Cosmos
In it, Tyson confirms that the annual US budget for Nasa – for all of its satellites and initiatives – is a paltry 0,5% (that’s $0.005 of every $1.00) of the US budget.
Put a different way; the marginally(?) successful recent bank bailout could finance Nasa for a staggering 50 years – so there is money for this, it is just applied elsewhere.
But, what has Nasa ever done for you anyway?
Well – you’ll maybe only appreciate it if it fails to deliver – your GPS, your DSTV, your mobile phone and everything else satellite based.
For those who have seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian, you may hear an echo of “What have the Roman’s ever done for us” as I tell you what Nasa has done for us:
1) Health and medicine: Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in medical therapies, Infrared ear thermometers, Ventricular assist device, Artificial limbs, Invisible braces, Scratch-resistant lenses, Space blanket
2) Transportation: Aircraft anti-icing systems, Highway safety, Improved radial tires, Chemical detection
3) Public safety: Video enhancing and analysis systems, Fire-resistant reinforcement, Firefighting equipment
4) Consumer, home, and recreation: Temper foam, Enriched baby food, Portable cordless vacuums, Freeze drying
5) Environmental and agricultural resources: Water purification, Solar energy, Pollution remediation
6) Computer technology: Structural analysis software, Remotely controlled ovens, NASA Visualization Explorer, Space Race Blastoff
7) Industrial productivity: Powdered lubricants, Improved mine safety, Food safety
But a view of earth, as Tyson so eloquently explains, has spawned in us so much more even than these things: He convincingly links the iconic 1968 Apollo 8 image of our beautiful blue earth set in a hostile black nothingness rising over the rugged moon landscape, to the global raising of consciousness for the fragility of our ecosystem; the birth of organizations and initiatives with charters to step back from the industrialized madness of 150-years of biosphere and terrestrial exploitation.
It is only with the perspective of our earth, viewed as it really is; without the familiar borderlines and colour codes of the schoolroom globe; that delivered to us how precarious our place and survival really is. The atmosphere that we feel is so vast, is in fact thinner than the skin on an apple; think about that a second before you discount the warnings against atmospheric abuses as some unlikely conspiracy. You live on a surface and depend on an atmosphere that is almost not there.
But it is the image of that achingly beautiful earth without it’s familiar borderlines dividing its people that are important if we are to mature as a species.
We have done a vast amount in space already; but we have barely begun; we need some perspective to understand how much still awaits. Take the schoolroom globe of earth. Put Mars on the scale and you’ll place it 1,6km away; put the moon on the scale and it is just 10m away. Our space station? About maybe 7mm away. The next closest sun; Alpha Proxima – about 15,000km away – about where Sydney is.
We do need to go to Mars at some point – but when you’re as feeble and economically and technologically as bedridden as we are, just the 7mm stretch to deal with our space station is about our limit right now. The moon at 10m away is a very much more distant prospect that requires slippers at least. But Mars? No, we’re not hiking there for quite a while yet.
But, we have to dream of it if we are to right our mindset.
This falls right in line with Humanity’s Destiny – an article I wrote some time ago.
Sadly, we’re dogged by the small and puny minded; by those who masquerade as caring about humanity, yet breed like there’s no problem, reckon pollution is an illusion, and recoil from any study that seeks to uncover the facts that might be inconvenient to their staunchly held dogmas.
Of course, Tyson is talking to an American audience about driving the American economy through innovation; diverting the youth into the productive fields of innovation and engineering in order to stimulate the economy, rather than trying to legislate better education, legislate more local industry, legislate, legislate, legislate… And he makes the point that we are legislation-centric in 2013 because the brightest minds (in America) of the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000’s did not have the stimulus to innovate as their earlier generations did – so they became bankers, lawyers and advertising executives; ergo – the focus on legalities today.
We are a smaller economy, but we are infected by the same flight of capital, flight of brains, and flight of innovation – because we lost sight of aspiring to a brave and better future and have the pea-minds constantly yelling cautions from their laagers of timidity.
If this small essay can raise the consciousness of just a single reader; then I have added my small voice toward progress.
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