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Where Is Our Wonder?

March 29, 2012

No one’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a world famous astrophysicist. He recently published a new book in which he argues that we must reinvigorate NASA and our manned space program. Only by planning an ambitious, manned trip into the cosmos will we ignite the imaginations and passions of America’s youth and collectively unite around a common cause. You may ask: “Well, Mr. Tyson, that sounds nice, but who’s going to pay for it?”1 I only invoke Mr. Tyson’s reasonable argument to ask a simple question of you: How can you look around you (or go outside and look up, for that matter) and not sit there in total awe? Where has our wonder gone?

Think about the technology that surrounds you. There’s the light bulb(s) illuminating the room you’re sitting in. That light bulb links to a complex power grid that is itself linked to an energy source that reliably provides you with the energy you use every single day. What of the computer, tablet, or smart phone that you’re reading this on? How does it work? Doesn’t it blow your mind that right now you could sit in the comfort of your own home and talk to someone on the other side of the world? I could go on: refrigeration, transportation, mass production. Why do we take all of these things for granted?

Let’s just look at the light bulb. How does the thing work? Did you know that there were 22 inventors of the incandescent light bulb prior to the work of Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison? Did you know that there’s an incandescent light bulb in Livermore, California that has burned continuously for over a century? Did you know that the major light bulb manufacturers formed a cartel that controlled the manufacture and sale of light bulbs between 1924 and 1939?2 The history of the light bulb is a history of invention, greed, and technological innovation. It’s fascinating and awe inspiring; it’s exactly the type of thing that we regularly ignore.

2001 was not quite like...2001.

Daily contact with a thing often transforms it from a time-saving wonder to another banal part of our life. Your smart phone is possibly the most intricate and amazing computing device ever devised. You literally have the power of a computer in the palm of your hand. Think of this: when Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick depicted the future in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer they imagined, HAL, was an enormous room. Today’s computers can fit in your pocket, or in the palm of your hand. We have created small, elegant, totally functional computers with speed and power that a little over a decade ago we could never have imagined.

So I ask you again: where is our wonder?

1 One of deGrasse Tyson’s favorite phrases is: “It’s only a half-penny on the dollar,” referring to NASA’s budget. In one lecture he asks the provocative question: “How much are you willing to pay for the universe?”
2 This cartel, dubbed the Phoebus cartel, have been accused of something called planned obsolescence. That is, the cartel deliberately prevented the production and sale of light bulbs that burned longer.

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