Deep Thoughts

Those Sweet, Surly Bonds of Earth

January 06, 2017

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Those Sweet, Surly Bonds of Earth

Why is it that all our heroes inevitably try to kill us? From Winston Churchill to Albert Einstein, the people we laud the most were, at one point, responsible for great harm done, and not always by their own intention. “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions,” said T.S. Eliot.

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine ran a profile piece on someone who, I predict, will someday become another savior-cum-killer. Sara Seager is a brilliant astrophysicist at M.I.T. who is dedicated to discovering more earthlike planets in the universe. Her life’s work has been committed to finding habitable planets light-years away from our own lowly blue home in the Milky Way.

One of Seager’s many goals is to get in contact with extraterrestrial life. She’s a leading advocate for a project called “starshade,” a sunflower-shaped, shieldlike device that is designed to block out the sun’s light so that other telescopes can better spot life-sustaining planets like our own. A more aesthetically pleasing version of Mr. Burns’ contraption, the starshade will not only blacken the sun for us to see deeper in the universe but also make the earth more visible for anyone looking in.

“Space is not a cure for ennui.”

The unasked but pertinent question here is: More visible to whom? Seager seems to be operating under the assumption that any contact with aliens is a good thing. Her optimism is untempered with caution. Has she not seen Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, or The Day the Earth Stood Still? If we can’t count on foreigners on our own terrestrial rock to be peaceful, what chance is there that nonhumans will be less hostile?

Judging by the popularity of science fiction and movies like Interstellar, Seager is far from alone in her sanguine attitude about extraterrestrial exploration. Americans have a rosy opinion of space travel. As a country, we were founded by explorers. Our lands were tamed by frontiersmen. Our heritage is peripatetic—we have a deep desire to keep moving forward, never staying in the same place for too long.

If you doubt me, watch a TED talk.

In her dedication to finding life in the cosmos, Seager is merely carrying on the American tradition of conquering new horizons. And therein lies the rub. Seager’s overeagerness could easily spell doom for us.

I’ve never understood the slobbering love affair many have with outer space and, more specifically, NASA. Sure, the moon landing was an incredible feat demonstrating American strength at time of conflict with a competing superpower. But I’m in agreement with Gary North: It was the “most expensive PR stunt in American history,” with little other benefit. We have yet to put a man on another moon, let alone another planet. It’s been a half century since Neil Armstrong made history, and the federal government still fails at running a simple website.

The saccharine lengths some go to to express their admiration for NASA has always made me queasy. Like all government bureaucracies, it wastes an incredible amount of money. Yet conservative lawmakers like Ted Cruz never miss an opportunity to remind us that conquering new galaxies is paramount to our national survival.

If the windbags in Washington can’t put a stop to the caliphate of killers in the Middle East, what hope is there for putting a colony on Kepler-186f?

My antipathy for space travel goes hand in hand with my overall distaste for science worshipping. The celebrification of the study of the natural world has been as infantilizing and degrading as Richard Nixon’s clownish appearance on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “I fucking love science”? I’d much rather string celebrity science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson up by his thumbs.


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