The Life of Real Possibilities
The other day, a 17-year-old told me she didn’t think there was life beyond Earth. I mentioned the recent discovery by NASA scientists of seven potentially habitable exoplanets in a solar system just 39 light years away and suggested that astronomers will find a second Earth very soon. I also pointed out that scientists have captured evidence of flowing water on Mars. None of this mattered to her. She shrugged indifferently and said nothing could change her mind. I left the conversation at that, knowing that empirical evidence and the laws of probability don’t mean much to some people.
Still, I wondered what could have caused her to adopt such an implausible view of the universe. Maybe her parents brainwashed her into thinking that way. This happens more often than not. It’s also possible that she arrived at her own cosmological conclusions. For some strange reason, she might have decided that our species is a singular gift to an otherwise barren universe. Then again, maybe she’s just scientifically illiterate–a common enough circumstance in America these days. Who knows? I try not to assume too much when studying others’ thoughts. At least I have the consolation of knowing that even Ben Franklin believed that other suns nourished a “chorus of worlds” just like ours.
The real problem here has to do with the damage inflicted by irrationality, superstition, and self-serving agendas. The Earth isn’t flat, mankind has been here for much longer than 6,000 years, we walked on the moon several times, ancient aliens didn’t engineer the pyramids, the power of your thoughts can’t reverse the aging process, and there’s no miracle cure for cancer, just treatments grounded in measurable study that either work or don’t work based on repeated application and review. As the old saying goes, not being part of the solution means being part of the problem.
Rational thinking, on the other hand, is a form of self-help. People who make informed decisions impact their environments usefully while gaining a clearer vision of reality. Fortunately, we’re seeing more of this way of thinking being institutionalized and applied to capital investment. For instance, the University of Houston offers a Master of Science in Foresight. The program “draws from a variety of sources including engineering, life science and biotechnology, physical science, social science, consumer science, communication theory and information technology” to “describe alternative plausible and preferable futures.” In short, the program is a futurist thinking factory designed to predict and solve problems for commercial enterprises that will ultimately benefit mankind. If Americans don’t apply these strategies to current businesses, they’ll eventually get crushed in the global economy.
Likewise, SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, plans to send two tourists in a SpaceX rocket into orbit around the moon sometime in late 2018, and in a splendid marriage of adventurous daring and capitalism, the tourists will pay for the flight. Of greater significance, SpaceX intends to land humans on Mars by 2020. Keep in mind that space exploration has led to the invention or development of artificial limbs, cell-phone cameras, LEDs, enriched baby food, solar cells, powdered lubricants, freeze-dried food, anti-icing systems, temper foam, cordless vacuums, and so on. It’s a good idea, as well as an inevitable long-term investment in humanity’s future. Somewhere along the way, and probably soon, we’ll find life on other planets. The consequences will be a special challenge for those unwilling or unable to accept the new reality.