I’m a science nerd. I’m pretty unabashed about that — because even if I were abashed, there’s not a hell of a lot I can do about it. I’m a computer programmer by day. My bookshelves are filled with science fiction and science fact books — everything from quantum physics to evolution to cosmology to neurology.
(I never said I understood any of it. But I’ve read some. Especially the books with the pop-up pictures. Them kind sure are purdy.)
Also, I was a biology major back in school. And chemistry, until it became all numbers and equations and memorizing periodic tables and shit. Seriously, chemistry — the lanthanides? I remember when we were lighting hydrogen gas together, back in high school. Man, you used to be cool.
The point is, I’m a big fat nerd, I like most everything science-related this side of an anatomically correct Carl Sagan blow-up doll.
(To be clear, “this side of” means the side without the anatomically-correct Carl Sagan blow-up doll.
I just wanted to clarify that. For those of you on the fence.)
As a science fan, I’ve been drinking in the coverage of the latest NASA Mars rover, Curiosity. I’ve been reading the articles online about all the various milestones — from the space elevator-parachute-chairlift doohickey that touched it down to those first grainy photos to the software upgrade that’s apparently beaming millions of miles up to it now.
(That last one is key, of course, because it finally gives us modern humans something new to compare against while we’re grousing about our lousy technology. Our grandparents can keep “If we can put a man on the goddamned moon, then why can’t we…? Now we can say things like:
“If we can flash new firmware to a freaking space buggy on Mars, then why can’t my phone still under contract get Ice Cream Sandwich?”
That’s what scientific progress is all about, folks. Bitching that the latest technology isn’t already in your pocket, cheap, flawless, futureproof and possibly programmed to rub up against your no-no place. Boldly go, mankind. Boldly go.)
Of course, the problem with reading scientific articles online is also, in weak and ill-chosen moments, reading the comments on the articles online. Because for every wide-eyed fan gaping in wonder at the incredible technological achievement, the incredible complexity and the vast enormity of the undertaking, there are three yahoos — on Yahoo!, usually — who just can’t step out of their tiny pinhole world:
“Hey! Y U wastin muney sending rovers to Mars when I ain’t got me a rover hurr in Murrica yet?! Them Marshians ain’t payin’ yer tax dollars, Congress. BLERGH!”
I understand the “me, me, me, right now!” philosophy. I do. I was four years old once, and sometimes I really wanted ice cream. Like, a lot. But it’s possible — some might say ‘enlightening’ — to step back and consider a larger universe. One that doesn’t start at your doorstep and end at your couch watching reruns of Big Brother.
(It can still include those things. But only if it also gets to include your eighteen-month old phone, which there’s still no comparable upgrade for and still won’t run ICS. Grrr.)
It’s not that people are outrageously selfish, mostly. Mostly. But you have to be a little selfish now and then — who else is going to look out for you? Mother Earth? Santa Claus? Martha Stewart? I don’t think so.
Rather, an awful lot of people seem eager to make this Mars project — and the last Mars project, and any scientific endeavor that isn’t actively yanking a tumor out of them, selling them a commuter hovercar or installing a bionic metal claw — all about politics. And frankly, that’s boring. And sad. And awfully, awfully small.
Some people will tell you that everything is politics. Personally, I disagree — mostly because I choose to ignore politics as much as humanly possible. It’s a full-time job. And I wish I were better at it.
(I’ve long said that if religion is the opiate of the masses, then politics is the bongwater. When every asshole with an opinion wields a figurative (or literal) megaphone, the result is neither pretty nor productive. You don’t have what the — take your pick — ancient Greeks, founding fathers or Roberts’ Rules of Order — intended, with respect to open public discourse. What you have are amplified assholes.
You would think the mental image alone would be enough to settle people down. But no.)
Anyway, if “everything is politics”, then its only because everything is also… well, nearly everything. Everything is biology — at least all the people, pets, plants, pox, penicillin and polar bears you’re likely to encounter. Everything is geology — you’re living on it. And everything is cosmology, because feel it or not, we’re all soaking in it.
I understand there’s a lot of money involved. And probably, the national budget is somewhat more complicated than paying the mortgage and credit card bills and calling the rest “beer money”.
(Though really, should it be more complicated? My system sounds pretty sweet these days. You’re not going to lose four trillion dollars a day buying six-packs of Sierra Nevada. I’m just saying.)
But this is Important Stuff. Aside from the outrageous awesomeness of what we’re doing — which is plenty enough reason for some of us — the things we learn on the trip, or even in making the trip, may benefit all of humanity in future years. And at some point, it may be absolutely crucial to know whether we can live on the moon, or how cold Mars gets, or which neighborhood on the sixth planet of Betelguese Gamma IX has the best views of the methane seas. Because everything is property value, of course.
And anyway, if we don’t go exploring, who else is going to? We’ve got some lazy damned species on the planet, truly. Sure, dogs and monkeys went up into the stratosphere in the early days, but they got bored of space travel, apparently. Too many Snausages and bananas near sea level, I guess. And no one else is in the hunt. You ever seen the dolphins doing rocket tests? No. The gazelles are practically useless in zero-G. And the hyenas keep ripping each others’ space suits.
No, if anyone on this planet should be careening off to planets and stars and asteroid belts, it’s us. Ship a few sensors out there and try to wrap our feeble squishy brains around what two hundred million miles (give or take a few billion trips from the couch to the fridge) even means. Or landing a bus in a crater on a planet that’s barely a pinpoint on a clear night sky, and that’s if you’re wearing your best pair of glasses.
(You think you’re good at darts. That rover landed a mile or so off base in the target crater on Mars. That’s like thwacking three darts dead-on bullseye in a smoky Irish pub — while standing on a sea liner rounding Gibraltar.
The lesson? Never play a game of cricket with a NASA engineer for cash. You won’t have any of that beer money left.)
Here endeth the science nerd rant.Permalink | No Comments