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On Sojourner, Going to the Moon, Transformers II & Ebert - A Recovering Physicist's Apology

About On Sojourner, Going to the Moon, Transformers II & Ebert

Previous Entry On Sojourner, Going to the Moon, Transformers II & Ebert Jul. 20th, 2009 @ 02:56 pm Next Entry
On July 20th 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on our closest celestial neighbor. Many of the TV channels I like to watch (mostly Discovery, Science, and History Channels) are having tributes to this monumental human accomplishment. What strikes me now is not so much the actual lunar decent and walk, but the reaction of people to the moon landing. I cannot help but wonder, where has all that wonder gone? Watching the coverage of the coverage, I am struck by how awed and inspired not just America, but the entire globe, was by those iconic moments. Most people can recall where they were when they saw Neil Armstrong hop down the ladder. But can they say the same about when Sojourner rolled off of the platform onto Martian soul almost exactly 28 years later? I'm guessing not.

I was standing in the middle bedroom of Grandfather's house in New York when Sojourner first beamed back images of the red planet. I don't know what it must have felt like to watch a man walk on the moon, but I can tell you that I found the idea that we had tentatively touched the surface of Mars to be both inspiring and humbling. Yet, why is it that there was not the same outpouring of emotion at that little rover's accomplishments as Neil Armstrong's? In many ways, navigating even an unmanned vehicle to Mars was a more difficult task than getting three people to the moon. Even more so when Cassini dropped the Huygens probe into the thick atmosphere of Titan. I was at home sitting where I am now, desperately hitting refresh on my browser when the images of a murky methane world in the shadow of Saturn began streaming in. So where was the jubilation from the world?

I'm not sure. Perhaps these events that shine so brightly in my mind as our great work accomplished are simply missing that human element. Perhaps if I were to live long enough to see a man touch foot on Mars I would understand, and all this silly nonsense and sentimentality I feel for mere probes would be wooshed away, and our globe would weep as one; bound together by the monumental accomplishments of our species. Or perhaps the amazing things that science does on a daily basis have become so ingrained within our modern thinking that it really isn't amazing anymore that we have sent our little servants and probes out beyond Earth to measure the unknown. Like indoor plumbing, there just isn't a whole lot left to be excited about. I hope this is not the case. I hope we always retain the childlike awe we feel towards mechanical things and the accomplishments of the imagination over reality. Since college when I was exposed to real physics, I have always tried to view the world as a three year old that understands differential equations. When we loose that sense of the epic and scope of beauty that we have struggled so hard to build, I fear we loose a bit of our greatness. We loose perspective. Yet, it is hard not to. How could one stand in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Gaza and not marvel at the engineering feet, yet care little for the United States electric grid (the most complex system ever build by human beings)? It seemed we are conditioned to take for granted the accomplishments of the present. Maybe that was what the lunar landing was then, a shining moment that broke through the wall that cloisters off our wonder for modern things.

Yet, I cannot help but also feel that attitudes were simply different when we landed on the moon. I fear that an anti-intellectualism is slowly growing in this country. I felt it prominently upon returning from Japan. It is a feeling of how dare people be smart, or that knowledge MUST inherently do something -- that seeking knowledge is itself worthless if there is no application for information gleaned. In short I saw a kind of pro-engineering anti-theory that startled me. Engineering is undoubtedly important, elegant, and beautiful in its own right. It is, after all, the application of knowledge wrestled away from the tight clutches of the universe. But engineering is not knowledge itself, nor pursuit their of. Engineering is not theory or experimentation. I fear that there is a movement afoot to tear down science and replace it with engineering, and it scares me. So we come to Roger Ebert's review of Transformers II.

Essentially, Ebert complained that the only thing epic about Transformers II was how epically abysmal the whole affair was. Ebert was berated for this from die-hard fans of the film. Prompting him to write this response. It is well worth reading for its own right, but I shall paraphrase. Ebert echoes my fears that there is an anti-intellectual movement afoot, and that there is such a thing as "good" and "bad" movies. His argument struck a cord with me not only because I hear this a lot in the writing center (that writing is subjective), but also because I see this as an all too common attack on science (wacko/pseudo-science is given as much cred as the good).

I'm not sure why seeing Sojourner roll down the ramp onto the red dust of Mars was not the same kind of transformative moment that seeing Armstrong hopping down the ramp onto the gray dust of the moon was for so many around the globe. Regardless of the reasoning, I fear the fact that those two moments are not comparable is deeply revealing. I think we have lost something in the nearly 40 years since the lunar landing: our awe, our wonder, the novelty of greatness, or our admiration of intelligence and the power it commands - a piece of our innocence, perhaps.
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From:robertab
Date:July 22nd, 2009 01:39 pm (UTC)

Anti-intellectualism

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I couldn't agree more with your observation that there seems to be a definite movement in this country against intelligence or education of any kind. In our society that worships and admires sports stars and entertainers as approximate deities and fears any kind of education that involves work without immediate gratification, it's no wonder that what several retarded conservatives loved most about the former president was his imperfections. I used to cringe when I would cite, in any political argument, how badly the man would speak and how the Republican response would be how human and ordinary that made him seem--someone that people could relate to or (as you have so elegantly stated)have a beer with. This kind of mentality, coupled with the mistaken belief that science somehow cancels out or opposes religion results in the mundane viewpoint that science and all acquired knowledge are somehow inherently evil.
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From:biggrumpy
Date:July 22nd, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)

Re: Anti-intellectualism

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Ebert also brings something interesting up in his article, sports fans love to demonstrate their knowledge of that sport and respect others (particularly sports casters) that are also knowledgeable. Sports fans like people that know what they are talking about, as they should. Yet, no one calls the guy that knows who played third base for the Sox in '82 an elitist. In addition, just because other people may think that third basemen was someone else, we don't throw up our hands and assume the third base player for the Sox in '82 is a matter of opinion or subjective.
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From:robertab
Date:July 22nd, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Anti-intellectualism

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Well said. Only that which is considered useless information or outside the realm of the common man sets intellectuals apart as elitists, but the sports statistician is to be revered and respected. God Bless America.

We need to continue this conversation in person.
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