The torch of human imagination

About 5 decades ago, we sent people to walk on the moon. We did this on one man’s whim as he spoke at Rice Stadium. In 1962, John F. Kennedy had committed to making the round trip to the moon and back by the end of that decade.

In the early 1960s, the only rockets the US had launched were essentially military missiles that the US Army pointed skywards. NASA had been barely founded and had just started taking its baby steps. And yet, by the time that decade was out, men had left their indelible footprints on the moon’s surface. They had done all of this using technology that is primitive compared to what we have today. The cliche goes that everybody’s smartphone is a 1000 times more powerful than Apollo 11’s computer.

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And yet, there are several other frontiers that we know lesser about than the far reaching realms of space. The under belly of the ocean is a famous example. Also, we have several compelling problems that we have not even began to solve. The prevalence of world hunger, the scarcity of clean water and the specter of climate change point to our glaring shortcomings. Why then have we ventured to the moon and aspire to go to Mars and beyond while these pressing problems on Earth continue to haunt us?

For centuries as our species evolved, we looked up at the night sky in awe and wonder. Most ancient civilizations were adept at identifying annual patterns in the night sky. We revered constellations (and continue to revere them) as masters of our fate. Several cultures regarded the planets as gods. It is this fascination with the “heavens” that inspired us to push on further, sent people into orbit, land on the moon and launch telescopes into space. It isn’t that space exploration is easier than any of those open problems we have above. It is just that outer space came with a long legacy of having captured our imagination for several millennia. One that stoked our curiosity to a greater degree than the cold ocean floor or a warming planet.

Dan Gilbert points out how we humans are the only species capable of creative imagination. Our imagination is a torch we point at a dark and hazy future to uncover it. To solve a different problem today, we just need to point that torch in a different direction. And the best part is that we have hundreds of thousands of ignited minds on the planet. It is just a question of where we choose to point them.

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