Thursday, March 26, 2015

The cosmic perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson visited Denver in January and I just happened to have a golden ticket.  Dr. deGrasse Tyson is an incredibly engaging and scientifically precise speaker. I was on the edge of my seat for 3 hours while he talked about the history of science and the culture of innovation, and answered questions from the audience.

Dr. Cosmos talked about how the United States is experiencing a decline in our respect for the scientific method. In juxtaposition to our current attitude toward science, he discussed the space program in the 1960's. The first person in space, Yuri Gagarin (a Russian cosmonaut) completed an orbit of the Earth in 1961. Remarkably, *eight years later*, in 1969 the US landed astronauts on the moon. The pure rigor and sustained engineering push to achieve this, in 8 years, is more than I can comprehend.

DeGrasse Tyson described how incredible it was when humans reached space, because no one had ever thought about what Earth would look like from afar. Instead of a basic classroom globe blown up to planetary proportions, the Earth was shrouded in clouds and storms and a swirling atmosphere.  Then, in 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon and snapped the world's most recognizable photograph: Earth Rise, posted above.  DeGrasse Tyson asserted that this "cosmic perspective" of our planet, just one more speck among so many, led to the modern environmental movement as we know it. I always knew that the Clean Air Act (1963, with regulatory amendments in 1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and the first Earth Day (1970) all coincided in time. (Turns out that the Environmental Protection Agency was also established in 1970 to enforce federal environmental regulations.) What I had never realized before was how closely this was tied to our recognition of our own finite resources. 

Seems to me that we could use a bit more of the cosmic perspective. As a former employee of an environmental non-profit, I have a new appreciation for the space program, NASA, and the work of astronomers everywhere.