Have we lost our nerve?

Today’s work commute podcast was Radiolab’s REBROADCAST: Space which originally aired August 20, 2012. Radiolab is always intriguing and definitely worth a follow. They ask big, baffling questions. This particular episode was devoted to comprehending the immensity of the universe, the insignificance of our place in that universe, and our perverse, yet oddly inspiring, quest to find the edge of space.

Turns out, we won’t. There is no edge. Bummer.

Actually, the best moments were the opening and closing segments. The opening segment describes the Voyager project, in which we launched a space craft bearing an auditory record of human civilization out into space headed away from us at 35,000 miles per hour. The artifacts on this craft were intended to accessible a billion years into the future. The Voyager craft is an invitation to visit Earth. Even if discovered by some intelligent alien beings, the odds that their civilization and ours will exist simultaneously are very small. We will likely be extinct before they get born. Bummer again.

The final segment talks about the loss of ambition regarding space travel that followed the tragedies of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. We don’t like the idea of people dying for space exploration. The problem there is that people will have to die. People always die when exploring new territory. Thousands of Europeans died when they sailed, explored and settled the West. That’s how it works. Thousands of brave souls flinging themselves at an impossible obstacle until, incredibly, someone makes it across. Here’s the difference: the thousands who died then died in isolation. The dozens who die now die on live television.

And so our governments now lack the ability to take the risks involved to do audacious things. We lack the ability to make sacrifice part of the recipe for solving immense problems. And so we are trapped on our planet, for now. Until someone figures out a way to make the necessary leaps without government help. It will happen.

Listening, I couldn’t help recalling the MIT Review article I recently reviewed which spoke to the same problem. We have, for the moment, lost our ability to imagine solutions to intractable problems. We have, for the moment, lost our nerve.

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