Communion Of Dreams


After the hype.

Today’s xkcd sums things up pretty well, I think: the actual discovery was cool, but the hype made it feel anticlimatic.

Above and beyond what this says about our press being driven by ASTOUNDING!! news and the failure to get even basic science stories right (with some very obvious and excellent exceptions), consider just what was behind the hype: excitement at the prospect of non-terrestrial life of any sort being discovered.

The initial speculation that NASA had proof of life on Titan swept like electronic fire around the world. It wasn’t just science fiction geeks. Or actual biologists. Or space buffs. It was pretty much the whole world, though some had more fun with it than others.

Why did this capture the imaginations of so many people? Easy: we’re hungry for this news, and have been for decades. It’s not just the countless science fiction books and movies which have fed this hunger (mine included) – it is also the very real science behind the search for extra-terrestrial life (or intelligence). Proof of the existence of life beyond our planet would likely be considered one of the most important discoveries in the history of mankind, and the announcement of such a discovery would be a turning point bigger than even the first time that humans walked on the Moon.

It is easy in a time of recession, when money is tight for most people and the government is trying to figure out ways to cut expenditures, to under-value NASA or basic science research. And I am not arguing for this or that ‘big science’ program, per se. But all you have to do is look at what happened this week, to note the wonder and excitement which was launched by the merest possibility of the discovery of life elsewhere, to realize that this kind of knowledge is something that people around the world are waiting for with eager, almost palpable, anticipation. I think it is one of the very best things about humans that this is the case, and it should be encouraged and used.

Jim Downey

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