After many delays, finally I watched Episode Five of Cosmos: Blues for a Red Planet. This was one of my favorites back in 1980. I loved the HG Wells passage, the lesson about Percival Lowell and how easy it is to believe the things you want to be true, and especially the simulated flight over Olympus Mons and through the Vallis Marinaris.
But what struck me on this viewing was the excitement of the Viking landings on Mars, and how Sagan re-captured that excitement. I remember well that first landing day, seeing pictures of Mars with rocks, a pink sky, that distant horizon. It was a golden time – there were the Viking landings, the Voyager encounters with Jupiter and Saturn, and the Russian Venera probes to Venus. And of course there was Cosmos.
It seemed to me that I was growing up in the golden age of science – space science, anyway, and I’m not sure I made much of a distinction. There were so many amazing discoveries, and so many more yet to come. I looked forward to the future missions to the planets, to the return of Halley’s comet, so many other things. And I started to wonder what happened to all that excitement? Where is it today?
Then I took a look at some of the recent events. Huygens landed on Titan. The Mars Polar Lander touched down successfully, even as Spirit and Opportunity still explore the hills and dunes of Barsoom. The LHC just started up (and had a glitch, but still should give some amazing results soon). LIGO is even now listening to space for the first faint gravity wave whispers. Scientists have discovered that universal expansion is not slowing, as expected, but is accelerating. We’re hot on the heels of dark matter and even dark energy. We have new photos of Mercury. And on and on. THIS is the golden age!
So why is science news these days so often glum and depressing? Here, I think, are some of the problems:
1) Everybody’s worried about the economy, the environment, the future of the planet and our species. How is science going to save us from ourselves? Those stories are of course important, but they’re pretty weak on wonder. You can only take so much gloom and doom.
2) There’s a huge push to be practical. What good is space exploration, LHC, etc? I think it relates to this obsession we have right now with measurable outcomes for everything. Whatever happened to passionate people studying what they’re passionate about? Who will champion that? Do what you love, and the money will follow.
3) There’s too much confusion between science and technology. Sure cancer drugs, the power grid, and improved solar panels are important, but they don’t get me closer to understanding the big questions. Those are the questions I’m after.
Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do electrons have just the charge they have, no more, no less, and always exactly the same as every other electron? What is causing these intense gamma ray bursts from deep space? Is it black holes, quasars, or something else we don’t understand at all? Why was the early universe so incredibly ordered?
These are all questions we have a chance of answering in the near future. THIS is the golden age of science!