It’s a great big Universe and we’re all really puny

It’s a great big universe, and we’re all really puny
We’re just tiny little specks about the size of Mickey Rooney.
It’s big and black and inky and we are small and dinky
It’s a big universe and we’re not.
The Animaniacs

The first completely undoctored image taken by the Mars Curiosity rover upon its landing last year.

The first completely undoctored image taken by the Mars Curiosity rover upon its landing last year.

Just a little over a year ago, I stayed up really late along with a number of friends, to see if the Mars Science Laboratory — more commonly known as the Curiosity rover — successfully made it to the surface of Mars. Landing is far from guaranteed: Mars is the graveyard for more than its share of probes, and Curiosity was even more risky. Getting the car-sized rover onto the surface involved an untested method involving a rocket powered Sky Crane, and thanks to the large distance, there’s absolutely no way for engineers to control the landing directly. It was all planned out and programmed, but with the light travel time between Earth and Mars, nobody could know whether Curiosity made it safely or not for several very long minutes.

But all went without a hitch. In the (Earth) year it’s been on Mars, Curiosity has helped increase our knowledge of the planet’s past: the water that once flowed and the thicker atmosphere that once surrounded it. (Update: Amy Shira Teitel has a great summary of Curiosity’s accomplishments, and a preview of what’s to come.) While my social networks are a bit skewed, I sense that people are personally engaged with Curiosity in a way they typically aren’t with other scientific projects. It’s not the first major experiment on Mars, and it’s not even the only rover currently active, since Opportunity is still hard at work. However, something changed between 2004 (when Spirit and Opportunity landed) and 2012, and I think it’s the nature of social media itself. People amplified the announcements coming from NASA and the popular science reports, feeding back into a sense of excitement and involvement.

[Credit: Randall Munroe]

[Credit: Randall Munroe]

As the Animaniacs philosophically stated, it’s a great big Universe and we’re all really puny. There are likely billions of rocky planets in the Milky Way alone, and on the order of 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. We won’t be able to reach these exoplanets in our lifetime or even for several generations (being optimistic). Mars and other worlds in our Solar System are what we have to study directly, and while that’s plenty to keep us busy for the foreseeable future, we’re  playing on the sea-shore, with the vast ocean of possibilities still waiting.

However, if we can feel connected to the scientific exploration, I hope that can mitigate the feeling of smallness. Scientists aren’t a separate species and they don’t live parallel lives to non-scientists: at their best, they engage in research on our behalf. Voyager is striking out into deep space to the benefit of humanity’s knowledge; the Curiosity rover analyzes the chemistry of  Martian rocks and we all are recipients of what it discovers.

I write about many things on this blog and on other sites. In many ways, I’m lucky: the main criterion I use to select topics is my personal interest. It’s rare that I’m required to cover a story that doesn’t excite me in some way. (Admittedly, I get excited easily.) For me, the important thing about knowledge isn’t the knowledge itself, but sharing it. When I learn something new, the first thing I want to do is tell others about it. In that sense, anyone reading this is a collaborator with me: I learn something, pass it along to you, and you can share it with others.

From Mars, to NASA scientists, to science communicators, to you, to your friends, family, and beyond, the message is clear: science is social. Curiosity — both in the common sense and referring to the rover — unites us as human beings.

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