Exploration great and small
This has been a pretty eventful summer if you’re a science buff like myself.
The Mars Curiosity rover, with its inventive landing mechanisms involving sky cranes and automated landing guidance, successfully touched down Aug. 6 at what has become known as “Bradbury Landing” after the author, Ray Bradbury. It has spent the following two weeks getting its entire software suite replaced from flight mode to exploration mode, and is now taking its first drives out on the surface of Mars.
Going back a few more weeks, physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland announced in the wee hours of the morning July 4 that they had found evidence of a subatomic particle right where the theorized Higgs boson should be. According to the current model of physics, the Higgs boson is a short-lived particle responsible for giving everything, from a hydrogen atom to my car to the sun, its mass. If this particle ends up truly being the Higgs, then a lot of scientists will be very excited.
Needless to say I stayed up late to watch both the rover landing and the Higgs announcement — at 1:30 and 3:30 a.m., respectively — and though these are two quite different topics, there was a certain symmetry to both events.
At both the NASA mission control room and at the conference center in Switzerland, you had rooms full of people very passionate and excited about what they do about to see something incredible. In both cases, you saw a lot of excitement, and even tears from the people involved and present (and I will freely admit to tearing up a bit myself watching these online streams).
When I was a boy and we got our first computer, it came with a CD-ROM encyclopedia. I spent a lot of time digging through that thing to read the articles on spacecraft, scientific research and exploration, and other related topics. I even had a folder where I kept printouts of articles I found particularly nifty. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say had I been a bit more focused on science and mathematics in high school (and had the forethought to plan for the required lengthy college time), I would have gone to college for something in one of those fields.
As it stands I am not a scientist, and I don’t really think I want to jump into that field whole hog at this point. I do still love talking about what’s going on in the realm of discovery, whether it’s in medicine, biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, or any of their related and connected disciplines. They are noble pursuits that have helped us gain a better understanding of the universe, our environment, and ourselves. More practically, they have helped us improve our farming, our medicine, and our machinery. Computers, the Internet, even the vehicles developed since 1900 have fundamentally changed how we go about our lives.
I don’t think there’s any shame in wanting to better understand, well, everything. All it takes is an open mind and some time to go over just how far we’ve come on that goal, and how far we still have to go.