Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Curiosity - a Celebration of the Human Spirit

I tried really hard to stay awake Sunday night, watching my Twitter stream grow steadily more excited. I failed. But luckily, the Mars Science Laboratory, with its rover known as Curiosity, went ahead and landed safely without me.

In case you've really not been paying attention, NASA managed to land a one-ton rover, much heavier than any other unmanned vehicle, on the surface of Mars. It's going to spend the next few years exploring the Martian surface, and maybe even find a few microbes under all that gravel, who knows. The engineering feats involved in that gentle landing, using a previously untested "sky crane", not to mention getting the picture shown here (taken by an orbiter that really was not designed for that purpose), are absolute testaments to human ingenuity and the power of the human brain and hand. While progress has been getting a bad rap lately (why did we think GMOs were a good idea, again?), and there are people out there who seriously bemoan the invention of agriculture as being the source of all the world's woes, it is hard for me to see this as anything other than a Good Thing.

Yes, there are always going to be those who say that that money should be spent on improving social conditions here on Earth. To quote a famous 1st century rabbi, the poor will always be with us - the US$2.5 billion cost of the Mars mission is a small perturbation on the budget of that illustrious country. The cost of the current wars is pushing a trillion dollars, a number so absurd that human brains cannot encompass it. If a fraction of that money were put towards eradicating child poverty and hunger, we wouldn't have to worry about the cost of a measly space program or two.

More to the point, I really think that humanity needs to explore its options beyond this planet. While we have a few billion years left before the sun makes this one uninhabitable, chances are we will have achieved that particular goal well before we need to worry about a red giant in the vicinity. So then what do we do? The only hope we have is to use those giant brains of ours to find us a new home, and exploring our neighbours in the Solar System has got to be the first step in that journey.

But beyond everything else, space exploration is just really, really cool. I know that some people have a fundamentally dark view of humanity, and believe we would do better to just shut up and die already, rather than spreading our contamination over the Universe. But I believe that we have a divine spark, whatever its origin (it does not require belief in a personal G-d). Every time humans take a step beyond their little concerns and squabbles, and work together to satisfy some of that divine curiosity we have been given, the Cosmos becomes a better place.

In the words of Psalms 8,  

ד  כִּי-אֶרְאֶה שָׁמֶיךָ,    מַעֲשֵׂה אֶצְבְּעֹתֶיךָ--
יָרֵחַ וְכוֹכָבִים,    אֲשֶׁר כּוֹנָנְתָּה.
4 When I behold Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which Thou hast established;
ה  מָה-אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי-תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ;    וּבֶן-אָדָם, כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ. 5 What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him?
ו  וַתְּחַסְּרֵהוּ מְּעַט, מֵאֱלֹהִים;    וְכָבוֹד וְהָדָר תְּעַטְּרֵהוּ. 6 Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

That crown of glory and honour just got a little brighter this week.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Amen Hadass, and the Talmud agrees:
    תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף עה עמוד א
    אמר רבי שמעון בן פזי אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי משום בר קפרא : כל היודע לחשב בתקופות
    ומזלות ואינו חושב - עליו הכתוב אומר ) ישעיהו ה ( ואת פעל ה' לא יביטו ומעשה ידיו לא
    ראו. אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי י וחנן: מנין שמצוה על האדם לחשב תקופות
    ומזלות - שנאמר ) דברים ד ( ושמרתם ועשיתם כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים איזו
    חכמה ובינה שהיא לעיני העמים - הוי אומר זה חישוב תקופות ומזלות.


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