In the midst of the Global Financial Crisis, spending $2.5 billion dollars on the Mars Curiosity rover may seem like an extravagant indulgence, perhaps even a waste, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Exploration is more than an act of curiosity, if you’ll pardon the allusion to the latest NASA mission. Exploration is the essence of what it means to learn. Without learning, there can be no progress. Without progress, mankind stagnates and falls into decay. OK, perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic, but I think there is a strong argument to be made for the value of scientific research, of which exploration is one facet.
Take a look at the US budget. Although I pay a modest amount in US taxes, I’m not a US citizen so I’m not advocating changing the spending on any of these programs. What I want to highlight is the two small, light beige squares (bottom right) that represent NASA (and other scientific research). Look at them in comparison to amount spent on interest (to target something neutral). The US spends proportionately more on research than Australia, so this is in no way critical of the US budget, but there are rumours of further cuts to NASA that will curtail future exploration.
The problem is, cutting back on scientific research is extremely short-sighted, it fails to understand the phenomenal value that comes from research. A hundred years ago, horses were the main form of transport, cars were quaint jalopies that looked like something out of Chity Chity Bang Bang, biplanes were on the cutting edge of aeronautics, the Titanic had just sunk, and the average life expectancy of a US male was 47. For all our faults and failings, including two world wars, mankind has progressed further in the past 100 years than in the preceding 100,000. What made the difference? The emergence of science as a profession and research as an academic discipline.
Perhaps T.S. Elliot explained this best:
T.S. Elliot Little Gidding
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment…
Research doesn’t start with answers or conclusions, it starts with questions. Science is replete with examples of where someone thought they knew what they were looking for, only to come away with an entirely different discovery. In this regard, serendipity is an important part of research and exploration. Some might be tempted to think that discoveries like Penicillin were accidental, but they weren’t in the strict sense of the word. The discovery of Penicillin was serendipitous in that Alexander Fleming was looking for answers, he was looking for a way of treating bacterial infections and came across Penicillin after a collection of samples had become contaminated. A less astute person might well have thrown out that one contaminated petri dish that went on to save hundreds of millions of lives.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid…
This poem was written in a small chapel in England, and here T.S. Elliot notes that exploration is not a contrivance to verify our preconceptions, it is not merely to inform curiosity, or research for research’s sake. Research and exploration are, in a sense, walking on holy ground.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum…
Why explore? Why conduct research? Why seek new discoveries? Because we cannot be content with reviving the old factions, we cannot abide restoring the old policies, we cannot march to the beat of an antique drum. If we did, our world would still be ravaged by polio and smallpox.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning…
Elliot may be guilty of a little tautology here, but his point is valid. There are lines of research that show great promise and potential but end up as dead-ends, while others can emerge to offer surprising benefits. When Paul Villard discovered gamma radiation coming from radium, little did he or any other physicist realize that one day this discovery would allow us to see inside the human body, and become a catalyst for further medical discoveries.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time…
From Apollo 8’s photograph of the entire Earth to Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot, there’s no doubt that exploration opens new vistas of understanding, raising our awareness of not only the universe around us, but the value of life itself.
Charles Darwin circumnavigated the globe looking at varieties of animals from exotic lands only to realize the fundamentals of Natural Selection had always been apparent in his own backyard.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
Somewhat appropriately, the first high-resolution image from the Mars Curiosity rover reveals the dark dunes that have accumulation in a what appears to be a dried-up riverbed. We have no idea what we’ll discover on Mars, if anything at all. And yet, although the first images from Curiosity look bleak and desolate, within them lie tantalizing clues, hints of water abd eroded sedimentary layers that may reshape our thinking about life in the universe.
Over the next two years Curiosity will explore Mt Sharp, looking for signs of life on Mars, and in the process expand the bounds of human understanding, going on through T.S. Elliot’s unknown gate!