Friday, May 10, 2013

The Earth is a Coop to be Flown

When I was growing up, we were lucky enough to live on ten acres of land in the East Texas Piney Woods. We were doubly lucky enough to have a small creek flowing across our property, dividing the "yard" from the "pasture" (that is to say, the "place we mow every two weeks with a lawnmower" from the "place we mow twice a year with a tractor"). Unless you were born to be a politician and are therefore immune to fun, I'm sure you can immediately see the appeal for a pair of school-aged boys.

This looks fairly familiar. via: KM&G-Morris

I spent whole weekends running wild through the woods. I caught crawdads, pelted water beetles with stones endlessly and to absolutely no effect, dug up clay to use as a volcano for a science project, knocked down every dead tree within a mile up- or downstream of my house, used fireworks in just about every way possible, and once my friends and I turned a large horseshoe bend in the creek into a mosquito breeding pond by digging a canal across the mouth of the horseshoe and allowing the stream to bypass the bend entirely (lesson learned re: the responsibility of humanity to use its considerable powers wisely).

The one thing that never got old, though, was the game of simply following the creek to find out wherever it went or came from. Did it have any tributaries? Did it flow straight into the Trinity River or did it join another stream first? Did it contribute to any ponds? Were there alligators or turtles? Were there beavers in this forest? Could I find a dam? Did it ever get deep enough to swim in? Was it navigable by canoe at some point? Will you please get to the point? Does... Oh, that was you, wasn't it? Yes, well...

Despite the warnings, from my parents about the dangers of snakes, trespassing, and getting lost so far from home and help (as if I might forget which way the creek flowed...), from my friends about the bellicosity of a few of our more reclusive neighbors coupled with the laxity of Texas' gun laws, and similar cautions from myself once I learned that the creek was everyone's favorite backstop for target practice on those days when you have too many bullets and not enough air conditioning, I was drawn inexorably up or down the creek, many times following the stream past the end of the last dirt road and into (as far as I knew) the untamed and unexplored wilderness that was the emerald ocean separating my house from the highway which was the back way to town (and that was somewhere you had to drive so it must have been five miles at least!). Several times, the only thing that turned me around was nightfall (another time, I remember suddenly, it was my gnawing dread of not being home when my dad returned from work and the ensuing punishment which caused me to hallucinate the sound of my mother calling my name from an impossible distance, so maybe I wasn't so bold as I like to think).

It seems to me that there is a real-life romantic ideal of joy in exploration that exists in perhaps everyone (hidden to varying degrees), certainly in children, which makes the unknown, the next bend in the creek, into a frighteningly powerful gravitational body. I couldn't prevent myself from seeing what was over the next bank until the darkness meant I couldn't physically see what was over the next bank. I knew I should go home, but I was late to appointments and missed hot dinners just because I was addicted to unmaking the unknown - And all this despite the fact that I'd never found a single Indian gravesite, beaver dam, alligator, or swimming hole worth reporting. To me, it was enough that I didn't know what exactly was there. Who gave a damn what it was?

If the title of the post and the stale rhetoric haven't gotten to you yet, let me reveal that I'm talking about space. Despite the fact that gravity, the limits of our comfortable atmosphere, the radiation environment, and the expense are all warning us that we shouldn't muck about up there, there it is. The fact that, in this case, the frighteningly powerful gravitational bodies are actual gravitational bodies is just a sort of reverse metaphor - Mars isn't pulling you towards it any harder than your computer is. It's the pull that isn't real, the one in your mind, that you should be feeling. The fact is, we can go to these places. We can make that psychological force into a physical one on 130 tons of hydrogen and oxygen and put primates where they weren't made to go. We absolutely can do all of these things right now with just a fraction of what we spend on killing one another - But it isn't very practical (for a while at least).

There is probably not a trace of early life on Mars. There is probably not a vast subsurface ocean teeming with life under the crusts of Europa or Enceladus - But then again, you don't even know a thing about what it's like under there. No one in the Universe knows that. That knowledge does not exist. It sits in the form of potential knowledge, unknowns waiting to be unmade by bits of matter complex enough to comprehend it. As far as we know, there is no other conscious life. As far as we know, if we don't learn something about the Universe, it will never be learned. If you don't feel something like a fish on a dock in your stomach right now, then either I've not done my job or I was wrong about everyone having a bit of an innocent love of exploration somewhere in their personality.

Whether we can mine asteroids or get helium-3 from lunar soil, or whether we need to establish a second home for humanity to safeguard our existence from a global catastrophe is irrelevant. The fact that there is an unknown should be enough to want to unmake it. The fact that it's possible should be enough motivation to go do it. To paraphrase Carl Sagan: Seven billion conscious beings on this mote of dust could use some perspective as to how much meaning there really is in their incessant slaughtering of one another over who owns approximately zero percent of the Universe.

There is so much more than what you know. (click to enlarge)