Today is the day – the 40 year anniversary of that small step for Neil Armstrong… But was it a giant step for mankind? I often wonder what it would have been like to be seeing that Apollo mission live – (and to that end, this website is awesome recreating the Apollo 11 mission in real-time: http://www.wechoosethemoon.org/ – the photos, videos and audio are completely cool) – would I have been as impressed? More impressed? With which element of the experience? Or would I have been like John Updike’s Rabbit, “I don’t know, I know it’s happened, but I don’t feel anything yet.”
The anniversary of the moon landing has been a marketing boon in a waning economy and this is not too surprising considering the fact that, as A.O. Scott says in his brilliant piece in the New York Times, “it was at once a science project and a media spectacle.” And this tenuous connection between science and popular culture continues to fascinate me. My interest in science has always been a curious relationship. I find certain elements of it amazing and others tedious. I love experimentation and hypotheses and discoveries… I loathe manipulation and metonymy: “The Science” indicates this, “The Science” says that. Ever since Professor Randlett pointed out that habit of hiding behind “The Science” in the early stages of my graduate studies I have always smirked a bit to hear someone say, with self-satisfied authority, “Well, The Science has shown…”
A survey carried out by the Pew Research Center shows that there seems to be a growing disconnect between the public and science. This is hardly surprising, but the bizarre thing is that people still think scientists are super important, like respectable, but they don’t believe anything that the scientists are saying (although they seem to believe things that “The Science” tells them.) I imagine that would be super irritating as a scientist. I mean, to be rated as the third highest group (behind the military and teachers) as far as contributing to society, but then have significant scientific theories disregarded, like evolution and global warming seems like a frustrating intersection to be gridlocked in.
It likely comes down to the fact I keep running up against, which is that people believe what they want to believe. I actually know people who believe – for real – that the moon landing never took place. This is harder for me to swallow than the reality that people don’t believe in evolution or global warming… but not a whole lot. [Even Lloyd Christmas worked it out eventually…]
Perceptions of what is important in science are also changing. “As an example, ten years ago, 18% cited space exploration and the moon landing as the country’s top achievement of the 20th century. Today 12% see it as the greatest achievement of the past 50 years.” But looking at what “The Public” (there is that troublesome metonymy again) says about important contributions in the last fifty years and you will see the answer with the highest number of responses is “Nothing/I don’t know.” [I don’t know? Are you fucking kidding? I admit, that I am still amazed is puzzling.]
So, on this day, amidst moon madness, recalling the last 40 years since that Apollo landing, I wonder about the hype. There is talk of returning to the moon by the year 2020. Good Ole #2, Buzz Aldrin said of walking on the moon, “I would never stoop to call kicking up dust on the moon a stunt, but it certainly wasn’t a pioneering effort that led to sustainment.” It seems like this could be money better spent, though I would love to have a go at a lunar escapade, so I understand the guys that want to have at it. And as we all know it all comes down to funding, so this will likely end up a partisan pissing contest in Washington. How Obama handles it will be interesting. Kennedy sure wowed ’em back in 1961 speaking at Rice University.
There is something kind of awe-inspiring to think about the pace of progress which JFK reiterates in his speech, and to think that we are choosing to stymie that kind of scientific progress at the expense of religious zealotry or partisan politics is pretty lame. For what it is worth, we did it, and I think it is something to be celebrated. But the more pressing reality is that we need to celebrate and reward the pursuit of knowledge on a more regular basis… the normal everyday stuff that might just save our asses eventually – unless the Jetsons really do end up being our neighbors.
For now, looking towards Wednesday’s new moon in Hong Kong… I feel more akin to Jerry than NASA…
Standing on the moon
Where talk is cheap and vision true
Standing on the moon
But I would rather be with you
Somewhere in San Francisco
On a back porch in July
Just looking up to heaven
At this crescent in the sky