(Or, How I Learned Everyone Wishes They Were A Scientist)
Last night, I took a cab down to Times Square to watch the landing of the Curiosity Rover, the latest and most sophisticated piece of robotic wizardry to be sent to the Red Planet. I did not have any idea of what to expect. I was not quite sure what was going to be shown on the large Toshiba screen, or even which screen it was (I found it, no worries). I was not aware of how many people were actually going to attend – was I going to be alone, or in the company of tens, hundreds, or even thousands of fellow space and science enthusiasts? More important, however, is what would it all mean? What would it mean if no one showed up? If tons of people bore witness to the then-unknown success? And what would we as a race of intelligent beings take away from this event? The answers would make themselves known as the time of touchdown approached and past. Before I get to the analysis, however, first I will do some anecdoting.
I mostly situated myself towards the back of Times Square, by the large, red-lit staircase. There I encountered a few people who work the NASA Langley Research Center (@Nasa360). They were kind and informative and I watched as some gave video interviews to a variety of media sources from a number of different countries. The various members from Langley gave out stickers and pins to curious onlookers.
There was a Google+ meetup where various astronomers, NASA-types, and fans were talking, tweeting, getting and giving up-to-the-minute info. At one point, Pamela Gay (@starstryder) asked if anyone was at Times Square, to which I naturally replied I was. She asked for a picture of the screen running the Curiosity show. Of course, I happily obliged. I was starstruck (tweetstruck?) that someone I admire was communicating with me and, like, totally asking me to do stuff, omgomgOMG… Apologies. Anyway, I sent a picture of the screen as it showed a simulation of Curiosity on Mars. This one, to be exact:
Next thing I knew, it was being retweeted and favorited left and right (by my standards, anyway), including by my one of my favorite science personalites/advocates/writers/all-around-awesome-guys, Phil Plait. Yeah, the Bad Astronomer himself (@BadAstronomer) retweeted (retwote?) a picture I took. Trying… to… hold in… fanboydom… From then on, good times abounded. Viewers were beginning to settle in, grab some, and we were all joined for a short while as one, witnessing once again what the human spirit (and a little American ingenuity! USA! USA!) are capable of if we put our hearts, minds, and resources to it. Or, what this guy said:
Humanity just dropped a NUCLEAR-POWERED CAR, intact, onto ANOTHER PLANET with a SKY CRANE and it’s SENDING US STUFF. BRING IT ON UNIVERSE. — Tom Scott (@tomscott) August 6, 2012
So what do we make of this? What’s the takeaway from such an historic event? If there is anything I realize from my experience in Times Square, it is that everyone wishes they were a scientist. (A space scientist!) I listened in on a conversation where one man was explaining to a friend how the landing was going to work. The friend was awestruck and wanted to know more. He seemed to listen with an expression that said, “I wish I knew what this guy knows.” As I spoke with some of the members of Langley and asked what they did for NASA, they were a tad self-deprecating in their answers, sheepishly admitting they weren’t scientists or astronauts. In my head, I shouted “Dude, you work for NASA. I don’t care if you’re a groundskeeper. You’re awesome!” (Although, it would have been awesome to have met an astronaut or scientist.)
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Scientists are big children. Engineers, too. Sure, they have to do a lot of extremely hard, and I’m sure at times tedious, work. Statistical analyses. Procedures. Research. But, at the end of the day, they’re big children. Wide-eyed, curious children learning about the world around them. And experimenting in it. Playing in it. And, oh, the engineers! They get to play with their Legos, Erector Sets, and Constux to make awesome toys that get to fly through space and land on distant worlds and fire lasers, pew pew pew! The rest of us, however, confronted with our “regular jobs” and lives, are jealous. We watch the people in the control room at JPL both with awe and envy. They are in the sandbox, playing the coolest games because they dream up the coolest scenarios with vivid imaginations. They play with the newest toys, as we look on from the outside hoping that a few grains of sand will spill over the wooden barrier onto the tips of our sneakers, allowing us the illusion that we are actually a part of it.
JPL Kid: “Hey, that’s a neat toy, what is it?”
Me: “It’s my Honda CR-V. It’s kinda like a Sport Utility Vehicle, but I can’t actually take it on dirt. It has automatic seats and windows, though, and a sun roof plus XM Radio! That means satellites! What’s more, it not only controls the internal temperature with dual-climate control, it also tells you the temperature outside! What’s yours?”
JPL Kid: “Cool. Mine is a nuclear-powered car with 6 wheels! It’s got 17 cameras on it, shoots X-Ray beams and drills into rocks. It also has a sensors that tell temperature, humidity, wind currents, and direction, air pressure, and more! Oh, and it got here by being lowered from a skycrane that was hovering with rockets.”
Me: “Oh. Cool. I… uh… hey… is that my mommy calling? <sniffle> I <sniff> gotta go. Bye, kid…”
Perhaps I’m being melodramatic; it’s really not that bad. OK, so most of us are not playing in the sandbox everyday. But, when I looked around at the many, many faces sitting and standing around me in Times Square last night, I saw that child-like wonder in all of the spectators. Mouths hung open from unflinching faces of many colors. Comments were excitedly and softly spoken from voices of many distant lands. We were all kids again, watching our daring friends throw a green plastic soldier from the roof with a parachute. (Except this particular green soldier then hovered with rockets and lowered another soldier to the floor!) Exuberant cheers were shouted when there was news of a perfect landing. For a few hours, we all dared to dream and play in the sandbox together.
I’m going to wrap this up by letting Randall Munroe have the last word on this subject: