Umair Haque is director of the London-based Havas Media Lab. He is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, which also published his popular book, The New Capitalist Manifesto. Haque is also a popular author at Medium.com. He has 128,000 followers…
That’s where I came across his latest article today. Haque is witty and writes in a breezy, acerbic style. As with Wild Duck, his Blog and Medium articles traverse an eclectic array of topics—not just politics. But when he wades into Washington, he is somewhat left and profoundly thoughtful. He expresses thoughts in the vein of CNN commentator, Fareed Zakaria.
In one recent article, Haque speaks eloquently about the need to bear witness—and that, in the face of hatred, this is not an easy task.
In his newest article at Medium, Haque argues that Donald Trump is a product of a bigger problem. He asserts that the west (US, UK and other western democracies) are generating a Tidal Wave of ignorance, demagoguery, and self-inflicted catastrophe.
So what is it that makes America lead the world in denying climate change, evolution or the age of the universe? (Whatever you believe it to be, it certainly isn’t 6,000 years! Even a 5th grader knows about carbon dating dinosaur bones or the time it takes light to arrive from other galaxies).
In my opinion, ignorance and aversion to science that is a prevalent aspect of western democracy—especially America—is driven by the far right and religious fanatics. It is the stuff that Bill Nye, Bill Maher, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Penn Jillette fight each day.
The late Carl Sagan fought ignorance, superstition and fundamentalism throughout his career and even during his physical decline. (*Blush* Both Bill Nye and I had Sagan as a professor at Cornell). DaVinci and Copernicus recognized the same threat to society. But now, the stakes are much higher. Instead of the personal risk (being burned at a stake), we risk the extinction of all life on Earth.
Fortunately, there are voices that continue this critical mission. Let’s just hope that they aren’t too late, or in vain.
The Fermi Paradox poses an age-old question: With light and radio waves skipping across the galaxy, why has there never been any convincing evidence of other life in the universe—or at least another sufficiently advanced civilization that uses radio? After all, evidence of intelligent life requires only that some species modulates a beacon (intentionally or unintentionally) in a fashion that is unlikely to be caused by natural phenomena.
The Fermi Paradox has always fascinated me, perhaps because SETI spokesperson, Carl Sagan was my astronomy professor at Cornell and—coincidentally—Sagan and Stephen Spielberg dedicated a SETI radio telescope at Oak Ridge Observatory around the time that I moved from Ithaca to New England. It’s a 5 minute drive from my new home. In effect, two public personalities followed me to Massachusetts.
What is SETI?
In November of 1984, SETI was chartered as a non-profit corporation with a single goal. In seeking to answer to the question “Are we alone?” it fuels the Drake equation by persuading radio telescopes to devote time to the search for extraterrestrial life and establishing an organized and systematic approach to partitioning, prioritizing, gathering and mining signal data.
Sagan explains the Drake Equation
Many of us associate astronomer Carl Sagan and Hollywood director, Stephen Spielberg, with SETI. They greased the path with high-profile PR that attracted interest, funding and radio-telescope partnerships. But, they were neither founders nor among the early staff. The founders, John Billingham and Barney Oliver assembled a powerhouse board of trustees, which included Frank Drake (Sagan’s boss at Cornell), Andrew Fraknol, Roger Heyns and William Welch. Among first hires were Jill Tarter, Charles Seeger, Ivan Linscott, Tom Pierson and Elyse Murray (now Elyse Pierson). Of course, Carl Sagan has long championed the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and joined SETI as Trustee near the end of his life.
There is a lot of lore and love surrounding SETI, because its goal pulls directly on our need to understand our place in the cosmos. This week, SETI is going through a bit of transformation as it prepares for the next chapter in the search. So, where are the aliens? Are the funds and brainpower spent on peeping for aliens an investment in our own civilization, a form of entertainment, or a colossal waste?
This fascinating video offers 10 plausible solutions to Fermi Paradox. Fascinating, that is, if you can get past John Michael Godier’s dry, monotone narration. But. take my word for it. The concept and the content is exciting.
What’s wrong with this illustration of the planets in our solar system? »
For one thing, it suggests that the planets line up for photos on the same solar ray, just like baby ducks in a row. That’s a pretty rare occurrence—perhaps once in several billion years. In fact, Pluto doesn’t even orbit on the same plane as the planets. Its orbit is tilted 17 degrees. So, forget it lining up with anything, except on rare occasions, when it crosses the equatorial plane. On that day, you might get it to line up with one or two planets.
But what about scale? Space is so vast. Perhaps our solar system looks like this ↓
No such luck! Stars and planets do not fill a significant volume of the void. They are lonely specs in the great enveloping cosmic dark.* Space is mostly filled with—well—space! Lots and lots of it. In fact, if Pluto and our own moon were represented by just a single pixel on your computer screen, you wouldn’t see anything around it. Even if you daisy chain a few hundred computer screens, you will not discern the outer planets. They are just too far away.
Josh Worth has created an interactive map of our solar system. For convenience, it also assumes that planets are lined up like ducks. But the relative sizes and distance between planets are accurate. Prepare to change your view of the cosmos…
1/7 the way to Pluto. I enlarged Jupiter’s moons. On a full-screen view, they are barely visible.
Just swipe your finger from the right edge of the screen to move away from the sun. Despite a fascinating experience (and many cute, provocative Easter eggs hidden between the planets), few readers swipe all the way out to Pluto and the author credits. On my high-resolution monitor, it requires more than a thousand swipes. Imagine if the Moon had been more than 1 pixel…It would take a long, long time! I would rather go out to dinner and a movie. But I urge you to travel at least to Jupiter. At 1/7 of the trip to Pluto, it should take less than 5 minutes.
On this scale, you won’t see the 1½ or 2 million asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. They aren’t large enough to merit a pixel. As Josh states, “Most space charts leave out the most significant part – all the space.” (an Easter egg at 1.12 billion km on the map).
* I borrowed this phrase from my former Cornell professor, Carl Sagan. He uses it in Pale Blue Dot [timestamp 2:14.]. This video tribute became a touchstone in my life; even more than having Sagan as a professor and mentor.
If you view it, be sure to also view Consider Again, Sagan’s follow-up in the video below. It is a thought-provoking observation of human-chauvinism throughout history—even among ancient Greeks. Carl isn’t the first atheist, of course. But he is eloquent in describing mankind’s ego trip: The delusion of a privileged place in the universe, or the religious depiction of God and his relationship with our species.
I am not an astronomer or astrophysicist. I have never worked for NASA or JPL. But, during my graduate year at Cornell University, I was short on cross-discipline credits, and so I signed up for Carl Sagan’s popular introductory course, Astronomy 101. I was also an amateur photographer, occasionally freelancing for local media—and so the photos shown here, are my own.
Carl Sagan is aware of my camera as he talks to a student in the front row of Uris Hall
By the end of the 70’s, Sagan’s star was high and continuing to rise. He was a staple on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, producer and host of the PBS TV series, Cosmos, and he had just written Dragons of Eden, which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He also wrote Contact, which became a blockbuster movie, starring Jodie Foster.
Sagan died in 1996, after three bone marrow transplants to compensate for an inability to produce blood cells. Two years earlier, Sagan wrote a book and narrated a film based on a photo taken from space.
Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of Earth taken in February 1990, by Voyager 1 from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (40½ times the distance between earth and the sun). At Sagan’s request (and with some risk to the ongoing scientific mission), the space probe was turned around to take this last photo of Earth. In the photo, Earth is less than a pixel in size. Just a tiny dot against the vastness of space, it appears to be suspended in bands of sunlight scattered by the camera lens.
Four years later, Sagan wrote a book, Pale Blue Dot, based on the landmark 1990 photograph. More recently, numerous fans have dubbed a 3½ minute excerpt of the audio book version into viral video tributes. (The most popular of these videos appears below this paragraph). In this very popular clip, Sagan makes a compelling plea for reconciliation between humans and a commitment to care for our shared environment. He unites humanity, appealing to everyone with a conscience. [Full text]
—Which brings us to a question: How are we doing? Are we getting along now? Are we treating the planet as a shared life-support system, rather than a dumping ground?
Sagan points out that hate and misunderstanding plays into so many human interactions. He points to a deteriorating environment and that we cannot escape war and pollution by resettling to another place. Most importantly, he forces us to face the the fragility of our habitat and the need to protect it. He drives home this point—not only explaining it, but framing it as an urgent choice between life and death.
It has been 22 years since Sagan wrote and produced Pale Blue Dot. What has changed? Change is all around us, and yet not much has changed. To sort it all out, let’s break it down into technology, our survivable timeline and sociology.
Technology & Cosmology
Since Carl Sagan’s death, we have witnessed the first direct evidence of exoplanets. Several hundred have been observed and we will likely find many hundreds more each year. Some of these are in the habitable zone of their star.
Sagan died about 25 years after the last Apollo Moon mission. It is now 45 years since those missions, and humans are still locked into low earth orbits. We have sent a few probes to the distant planets and beyond, but the political will and resources to conduct planetary exploration—or even return to the moon—is weak.
A few private companies are launching humans, satellites or cargo into Space (Space-X, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin). Dozens of other private ventures have not yet achieved manned flight or an orbital rendezvous, but it seems likey that some projects will succeed. Lift off is becoming commonplace—but almost all of these launches are focused on TV, communications, monitoring our environment or monitoring our enemies. The space program no longer produces the regular breakthroughs and commercial spin-offs that it did throughout the 70s and 80s. continue below photo…
Sagan explains the Drake Equation. (Click for 2 photos with solution)
Like most scientists, Carl Sagan was deeply concerned about pollution, nuclear proliferation, loss of bio-diversity, war and global warming. In fact, the debate over global warming was just beginning to heat up in Sagan’s last years. Today, there is no debate over global warming. All credible scientists understand that the earth is choking, and that our activities are contributing to our own demise.
In most regions, air pollution is slightly less of a concern than it was in the 1970s, but ground, water pollution, and radiation contamination are all more evident.
Most alarmingly, we humans are even more pitched in posturing and in killing our neighbors than ever before. We fight over land, religion, water, oil, and human rights. We especially fight in the name of our Gods, in the name of national exceptionalism and in the name of protecting our right to consume disposable luxury gadgets, transient thrills and family vacations—as if we were a prisoner consuming his last meal.
We have an insatiable appetite for raw materials, open spaces, cars and luxury. Yet no one seems to be doing the math. As the vast populations of China and India finally come to the dinner table (2 billion humans), it is clear that they have the wealth to match our gluttony. From where will the land, water, and materials come? And what happens to the environment then? In Beijing, the sky is never blue. Every TV screen is covered in a thick film of dust. On many days, commuters wear filter masks. There is no grass in the parks and no birds in the sky. Something is very wrong. With apologies for a mixed metaphor, the canary is already dead while the jester continues to dance.
This plaque is bolted onto the first man-made object to leave our solar system
Sociology: Man’s Inhumanity to Man
Sagan observed that our leaders are passionate about conquering each other, spilling blood over frequent misunderstandings, giving in to imagined self-importance. None of this has changed.
Regarding our ability to get off of this planet, Sagan said “Visit? Perhaps…Settle? Not yet”. We still do not possess the technology or resources to settle even a single astronaut away from our fragile home planet. We won’t have both the technology and the will to do so for at least 75 years—and then, only a tiny community of scientists or explorers. It falls centuries shy of resettling a population.
Hate, zealotry, intolerance and religious fervor are more toxic than ever before
Today, the earth has a bigger population. Hate and misunderstanding has spread like cancer. Weapons of mass destruction have escaped the restraint of governments, oversight and safety mechanisms. They are now in the hands of intolerant and radical organizations that believe in martyrdom and that lack any desire to coexist within a global community.
Nations, organizations and some individuals possess the technology to kill a million people or more. Without even targeting civilians, a dozen nations can lay waste to the global environment in weeks.
Is it time to revisit Pale Blue Dot? Is it still relevant? The urgency of teaching and heeding Carl Sagan’s words has never been more urgent than now.
Carl Sagan probably didn’t like me. When I was his student, I was a jerk.
Sagan was already a TV personality and author when I took Astronomy 101 in 1977. Occasionally, he discussed material from the pages of his just-released Dragons of Eden, or slipped a photo of himself with Johnny Carson into a slide presentation. He clearly was a star attraction during parent’s weekend before classes started.
Indeed, he often used the phrase “Billions and Billions” even before it led as his trademark. Although he seemed mildly mused that people noticed his annunciation and emphasis, he explained that he thought it was a less distracting alternate to the phrase “That’s billions with a ‘B’ ” when generating appreciation for the vast scope of creation.
At this time that Sagan was my professor, he appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Like a lunkhead, I wrote to Newsweek, claiming that his adulation as a scientist was misplaced and that he was nothing more than an PR huckster for NASA and JPL in the vein of Isaac Asimov. I acknowledged his gift for popularizing science, but argued that he didn’t have the brains to contribute in any tangible way.
I was wrong, of course. Even in the role of education champion, I failed to appreciate the very powerful and important role that he played in influencing an entire generation of scientists, including, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Although Newsweek did not publish my letter to the editor, someone on staff sent it to Professor Sagan! When the teaching assistant, a close friend of Sagan, showed me my letter, I was mortified.
Incidentally, I always sat in the front row of the big Uris lecture hall. As a student photographer, I took many photos, which show up on various university web sites from time to time. In the top photo, Professor Sagan is crouching down and clasping hands as he addresses the student seated next to me.