With the passings of Ray Bradbury and Sally Ride, and the successful launch of Curiosity, I’ve been thinking a lot about space exploration and the importance of science and the drive to learn more, to ask why, to discover. As the mother of a three-year-old, I want desperately to bottle her sense of wonder and to do everything I can to prevent it from disappearing.
The older I get, the more worried I am that the fantastic is fading more quickly than we can capture it. I know it’s a natural progression. We have to think about mortgage or rent, putting food on the table, clothing our families, paying for retirement or college. We hear stories about kidnappings and heartache, and we create ways to shield ourselves and our children from them. We manufacture human interest stories where there are none and ignore the ones that matter most.
I don’t discount the importance of practicality (this blog is, after all, named practical whimsy), but by focusing on the mundane to the exclusion of the fantastic, we lose some of what makes life worth living.
The practical keeps us alive – fed, clothed, sheltered. The fantastic, the wonder, the whimsy, on the other hand, is what makes us live – really truly live. Think about the days that are your most memorable – the ones that make you smile months or years later. Now think about trying to capture a little of that every day. For me, the best way to do that is through exploration. Without curiosity – and the drive to satisfy that curiosity – we often live a mundane life. It’s the unusual, the unexpected, the different that drives the happy moments. When we stop trying to learn, when we accept without questioning, when we focus on the worries of the present instead of the possibilities of the future, that’s when it’s easy for us to become bored or despondent.
The amazing thing about science and space exploration is its potential to capture the imagination, deliver on the fantastic and satisfy the practical – all at the same time. And yet year after year, we fund (lightly) the practical applications of science (important yes, but limiting) and continue to de-fund the science of the imagination. And that’s a shame. We need to reach for the stars to help us find the starry night around us and the light of inspiration within us. I want desperately for K to see that as an adult there is still wonder in the world and that no matter how much she learns that there is something fantastic to learn just around the corner.
Others have expressed this far more eloquently than I, so I will leave it to them to make my case for me.
From NPR’s story on the passing of Ray Bradbury:
In 2000, when I was the editor of a magazine called Space Illustrated, I commissioned Bradbury to write an essay about Mars and its hold on our imaginations. His response was the best expression of the why of space exploration that I’ve ever heard. He called us the betweens on a journey from the cave to the stars, a journey the universe requires us to take.
We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes? Mars says we cannot.
To quote Sally Ride:
“Studying whether there’s life on Mars or studying how the universe began, there’s something magical about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. That’s something that is almost part of being human and I’m certain that will continue.”