Dr. Andrew Rader (from MIT, specializing in long-duration spaceflight) is a SpaceX mission manager, scientist, science fiction aficionado and futurist. He has a keen eye for the past and recognizes how history shapes our future. He’s the author of several children’s books that seek to inspire the next generation of scientists and explorers and has just released something for us adults—Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us to the Stars.
I had the privilege of reading an early draft of the book and loved the way it followed the history of exploration from our humble beginnings in Africa to the migration of the Polynesians, the exploits of the Egyptians, the early sea-voyages of the Chinese through to the Romans, Vikings and Europeans.
Dr. Rader examines the motivations and ramifications of vastly different cultures as they venture out into the world. He looks at how they waxed or waned based on their desire to explore. For me, that was the crux of the book—that for all our faults, exploration opens up new horizons, and not just in terms of trade but in ideas and ethics. There’s a twisted dichotomy to exploration. On one hand, the exploitation of others through cruelty and greed is the low point, but it also provides a melting pot for diverse thinking, which provokes change. It seems the allure of the horizon has always beckoned us on, calling to us, promising of a bright future.
Curiosity is the engine that drives exploration. If you’ve read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, you’ll know most of the examples are of species found in England. From the breeding of pigeons to ants fighting on the side of the path next to his cottage to how weeds compete with each other to fill an empty plot of dirt. Darwin may have drawn on local observations, but it was the voyage of the Beagle and his exploration of the Galapagos that set his mind alight. Exploration allowed him to see what had been staring him in the face all along.
For me, the defining criteria of a great book isn’t what lies on each individual page, it’s whether it makes me think. A five star book is one that has me mulling over ideas for days and weeks to come, and Beyond the Known does that. It leaves you with a sense of awe at how far we’ve come and excitement for the next steps.
In Beyond the Known, Dr. Rader traces our growth as a species reaching for the stars, and makes the case that our past allows us to chart the future. One day, we’ll stand on Mars and soar out toward the stars, taking all we have learned with us. Exploration shapes us, it defines us. There’s something primeval about our desire to learn—whether that’s a child on a beach looking in rock pools or the Juno probe in orbit around Jupiter, we seek because we want to learn, and we’re better for that journey.
If you’re looking for a great read over Christmas, check out Beyond the Known.