Are we Living in the Greatest Time in Astrophysics?

You wouldn’t know it if you watch the news.

Stories about immigration, impeachment, sanctions, political investigations, attacks on oil fields and the like litter the headlines daily. These are deeply important to some, while others are more content to obsess over what celebrity did what to who, or who was airbrushed in what magazine. In the reality of the Universe, none of it matters. The celebrity with the DUI, the world leader threatening nukes. Even the events we view as the most important in human history are all pointless.

Now, before you flame me, and after your ears stop smoking, let me explain. There is context to this. It’s not that I don’t care about how events effect humans or Earth, or that my family isn’t the center of my world. World conflict, wars, rogue leaders, damage to our planet and all the suffering that goes along with it… They just wouldn’t happen if we understood as a species what is going on in astrophysics; and as a result understood a bit of our own insignificance. Maybe that sounds like a bit of hippy utopia dreamland to you, but it’s not. The world still wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a lot different, and a lot better.

Yes, there would still be assholes trying to rule our world, but they’d be a lot less likely to be anything more than a guy preaching to himself on the street corner. We’re in an absolutely amazing time of discovery, but one of the most amazing discoveries was recently overshadowed by a celebrity posing nude for a magazine…

Did you hear that a “Super Earth” containing water was discovered 110 light years away through a collaboration of data from several space telescopes? Or did you hear that Kylie Jenner posed nude for Playboy? I’m guessing you heard the latter, several times from several different sources on the same day. How did we get here?

The immediate reaction to another Earth-like planet from our society in general is “so what?”. We won’t get there in our lifetime, if ever, so why does it matter? That requires too much forward thought. Instead we’re obsessed with things like unearned celebrity – people being famous not by accomplishment, but through calculated public relations. We’ve been conditioned to a return to small, selfish thought process instead of dreaming and learning big.

So why Astrophysics and not cancer research, or global warming, or other important humanitarian causes? Astrophysics is everything, literally – and this one time, literally is not hyperbole. Astrophsyics covers the smallest quark to the largest galaxy, the beginning of time to the end of time. That’s not to say that thrusting forward the importance of astrophysics will directly resolve all world issues. But if we don’t understand the big picture and continue to think small, we continue to work on other important tasks alone and against each other.

Space and space exploration was a major part of the news from the 60s well into the 80s. So what happened? We have more time with news now, don’t we? Why did reports of space, astronomy and science in general get relegated to the back page, or nothing more than a fleeting mention unless it involved tragedy? Large corporations started buying news outlets, which caused them to be purely driven by ad revenue which is generated by ratings. 24 hour news channels introduced dumbed-down and obsessive reports on irrelevant topics and gossip to fill time. They had to make the gossip seem more important than it was to maintain viewership. People like Nancy Grace, and Bill O’Reilly were given platforms to treat opinion as fact on news outlets and shock and scare viewers into a cult-like following. From there, “news” started to morph into empty entertainment. Reality TV and scripted reality TV married the two, blurred the lines further, and created an unattainable expectation for the real reality.

There’s a bit of chicken-and-egg argument in this dumbing down and even fabrication of information. Is it what society wanted, or what was slowly force-fed to society? If it wasn’t obvious already, I’m of the opinion that society was gradually led down the path. My leading example is the how political agendas have taken over everything in our daily life. Our political affiliation now drives who we are, instead of our societal values driving who politicians are. TV networks created caricatures of political figures and ideals to drive soap opera ratings. In a lot of cases, the politicians either adapted to fit the caricature, or the people voted in a pre-made caricature. In both cases, we’ve come to accept those caricatures as reality, so they are.

An unfortunate side-effect to the acceptance of blending of fact and opinion is the misguided idea that scientific fact can be considered opinion. The Earth is a spherical object with an age of about four and a half billion years. It just is. It. Just. Is. Despite this being proven, many will claim this is an opinion, and that their facts tell them the Earth is only 6000 or so years old, or that it is actually a flat disk, hurtling upward through space at nearly the speed of light. Neither of the latter explanations are true. No, they’re not. Really, it’s not open to interpretation.

However the sociological mechanisms worked to get us to this current state, we’re suffering as a society, and a species because of it. Inside the Orion Nebula, the Hubble space telescope has imaged several proto-planetary disks. In other words, we’re watching entire solar-systems form with the same violence that our own was formed with billions of years ago. Planets surrounding distant stars are discovered almost daily. The next generation of space telescopes will tell us about the atmosphere of those planets, and what they’re made up of with certainty. It will be scientific fact. It will not be opinion or conjecture.

A mathematical and physics genius who came up with a theory over a hundred years ago continues to be proven correct time and time again – scientifically, not theoretically. Even the math and subsequent theoretical possibilities that he didn’t agree with because they seemed so outlandish at the time are being proven correct with regularity. Yet people are still hung up that it is called the “theory” of relativity. Unfortunately to many, no matter how much of Einstein’s theory is proven as fact, way too many view this as just an idea.

We’re talking about going to Mars, with humans, in the next ten years. We’ve sent out probes that have left our solar system, and are still reporting back. We recorded two black holes that collided two billion years ago, and more recently a black hole swallowing a neutron star. Even more recently, researchers believe they’ve recorded a black hole forming!

Look into the future for a moment. Let’s say the Ghost of Science Future takes us on a trip. What will happen when we make contact with another civilization (if we don’t blow ourselves up first)? Are we so jaded that we’ll collectively deny the significance of two way communication with another civilization because it takes too long to send and receive a message? Or that the advancements related to reaching a society potentially hundreds of times more advanced than our own don’t matter because they won’t happen in our lifetime? I fear this is where we’re headed.

What a great nerd movie idea. The Scrooge Twins and the Anti-Vaxer Carol: Staring Vani Hari and Jenny McCarthy as the Scrooge Twins.

If you stumbled upon this post and you’re fuming, and your ears are smoking, and you want to reach through the screen and tell me I’m an idot. Or you just don’t feel that there is a significance in space exploration and discovery for society, please immediately do the following:

  • Throw out your mattress
  • Get rid of all your shoes
  • Destroy your microwave
  • Don’t ever get an MRI
  • Don’t ever watch a movie on DVD or BluRay (nobody cares about CDs anymore)
  • Sorry, you can’t stream it over the Internet either
  • While you’re at it, don’t ever watch TV again, or at least only watch locally generated programming not carried by a satellite
  • Smash your cell phone
  • Do you have GPS in your car? No, you don’t

And on and on. All of the above and much of what you use on a daily basis are brought to you by the space program and space exploration.

How do we use so much science every day and continue to see people deny it’s reality or change facts to fit their beliefs? Aren’t facts supposed to drive beliefs? We’re in a lot of trouble, but I don’t think it’s irreversible. I believe we were on our way when I was growing up. I may have been too young to really understand things that were going on, but I knew they were significant.

I happened to be sick at home from school the day the Challenger exploded. I watched it live. The launch was on every network, because. Because mostly, news was actually news then. Challenger wasn’t on every channel because they were waiting for an explosion, it was being aired because of the significance of the launch, and every launch prior.

In 2019, humans have created booster rockets that land on a platform in the middle of the ocean… vertically! They freaking land just as they took off! There are amazing discoveries that lead to even more amazing discoveries almost every day. We’re living in a time of discovery like humans have never seen, and most of us are missing it.

My hope is that one day before I’m gone we can look at a distant planet and understand the significance of it. We can wonder as a society what it’s inhabitants are like, what they feel, what makes them happy, what makes them hurt. For now, we’re unfortunately stuck with endless reports telling us that what a Kardashian says should matter.

Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA

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