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A comet far from “meh”

We should take a step back from our sad little lives (and they’re all sad little lives in these sad little times). Maybe more than a step, actually 311 billion miles away all the way to the comet 67P/Churyumov-GerasimenkohasRosetta. That is where, on November 12, the European Space Agency landed the probe Philae that separated from its mother ship, Rosetta. That distance, and the ten years it took the ship to travel that far, aren’t the only mind-boggling numbers, but then numbers are always amazing when it comes to reestablishing the supremacy of the universe as compared to our own blue planet, the one that we are so busy destroying along with its occupants. More numbers? The comet, itself 6 billion years old, is streaking through space at 41,000 mph. That Rosetta put itself in orbit last August and is moving alongside it is a feat of unimaginable proportion. That Philae actually landed,(albeit bumpily and for now remaining in shadows that prevent it from getting enough energy from the sun) is another. If all goes well, it should help us find out much more about the origin of the solar system and perhaps the ultimate destiny of life.

We are lucky enough to be living in this vast and glorious universe that scientists and philosophers have never stopped celebrating. Yet here we are, moaning and whining about sleepless nights and aches and pains and prescription pills and diets, complaining about rude cashiers, noisy neighbors and obnoxious relatives, worrying about college education rates and losing our jobs and our lack of savings. If we ever lift our heads from the contemplation of our own miseries, we see failing economies and high unemployment rates, boats loaded with immigrants sinking along prosperous shores, poverty, hunger and disease killing thousands, stranded polar bears, new hordes of barbarians putting Attila to shame, democracies where self-serving politicians court votes (forget about public service,) countries in the rest of the world where monsters loot government coffers while silencing and hanging or cutting to pieces those who dare protest. Our sad little lives continue as we meet every setback, every piece of good or bad news not concerning us directly with a bored meh and have already forgotten about Philae that landed only two days ago.

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Categories: our world, Science, space Tags: , ,
  1. November 14, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks for the beautifully sad and passionate piece, Saïdeh Pakravan. Let’s face it: We, the human species, do not deserve the Universe we live in. This Universe will carry on without us soon enough, for that is the direction we are headed.

    Raymond Keen – author of “Love Poems for Cannibals”

    • November 14, 2014 at 8:12 pm

      Thank you, it’s so rewarding to have readers who understand exactly what one is trying to say!

  2. November 14, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    Saideh, my back is killing me and I didn’t sleep well last night. And don’t get me started about the other stuff.

    But seriously….

    I think the Philae probe landing on a comet is way cool. But let’s face it, that’s not going to do much of anything to soothe my aching back much less solve any of the big problems down here on earth.

    Back in the surly ’70s, the popular catch phrased of the vexed was, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we fix [fill in blank].” Well, most of the things that folks wanted remedied didn’t get fixed, at least not right away. And putting men on the moon fairly quickly got boring — except for Apollo 13 — and so that stopped.

    The answer to that rhetorical question then and now is that it really is a lot simpler, if not really easy, to send an object from here to some other spot in the solar system than it is to solve the big, complex problems that trouble our society.

    For instance, the total cost of the ESA comet project came to about $1.74 billion. That sounds like a lot until you consider that the average cost of developing a new drug to treat just one disease is now about $5 billion. (http://j.mp/1Brye4P)

    Consider then what Lawrence Summers recently wrote: “The WHO’s slow response to Ebola was not surprising, given its recent staff cuts. For that, we all share the blame. Since 1994, the WHO’s regular budget has declined steadily in real terms. Even before the Ebola crisis, it struggled to fund basic functions. The entire budget for influenza was just $7·7m in 2013 – less than a third of what New York City alone devotes to preparing for public health emergencies.” (http://j.mp/1BrBi0O)

    Influenza kills a quarter to a half million people each year. The 1918 flu pandemic killed about 50 million people.

    Hearkening back to the ’70s, some will be tempted to say that the money spent on the comet probe would have been better spent on fighting influenza, or ebola, malaria, whatever. But that is missing the point.

    As you suggest, there is a great value in being humbled periodically by new discoveries in cosmology. But that does not diminish the legitimacy, and the necessity, of people caring about people. Nor does it discount the vital importance of this infinitesimal speck of the sprawling universe to those who live on it.

    This year, American consumers alone spent over $7 billion on Halloween. So rather than ask whether there are more important things for us to spend money on than cosmic exploration, we might well ask whether we could get by with somewhat less candy corn and costumes to invest in something that could make the world a lot better.

    The good news is that there are many exciting innovations happening which may get less buzz than dramatic space probes but which can make life better and solve big problems. Inspiration may be found in the December issue of Popular Science, which lists and awards some the best innovations of the past year.

    The big winner is particularly exciting: Newlight Technologies’ Aircarbon — plastic produced by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Check it out here at http://j.mp/1BrLBlk.

  3. November 16, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Inspirational post, Saideh. Thank you for reminding us of how inconsequential we are in this vast universe.

    And Lew, thanks for reminding us how much we matter on this interconnected world.

    Still, I think It’s really unfair to compare conquering asteroids to beefing up funding for influenza prevention, much less Halloween. I think there are some unconquerable impulses in the human spirit–discovery among them. So whether the discovery is aimed at new stars, unraveling the mysteries of the brain (http://www.onemind.org/) or how to how to harness the mind to change old habits (https://hbr.org/2012/09/ten-ways-to-get-people-to-chan/), there will always be people striving for the seemingly impossible in the hopes of rescuing us from ourselves.

    As for Halloween (or Christmas, or Mother’s Day) –well, one bad habit we’ve been grooving in our brains for close to a century is that “things” will make us feel better. If we can unlearn that habit as a society (notwithstanding the new, kicky red shoes I just acquired), perhaps we will be on our way to redirecting our spending towards things that matter and for the greater good.

    Like finding ways to ease your back pain and help you sleep more restfully, Lew!

    Meanwhile, poets, artists and philosophers like Saideh must continue to inspire us to reach for the heavens – even when those heavens are to be found mainly in our imagination.

    • November 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      Beautiful and intelligent comment, thank you.

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