Curiosity Satisfied: Finally, Another Kind of Celebration

In an age that fights to keep its mind from being boggled, this was a true jaw-drop — if only you gave yourself permission to experience it.

The very idea that a man-made thing could ascend to the heavens, be directed accurately from Earth, pierce an unforgiving atmosphere, survive mechanically intact, and then — go ahead, take a breath; you’re going to need it — hover over the surface of Mars and deploy another complicated apparatus and put it down without damage: that’s stunning. If it doesn’t make that inside-aura around your heart warm and excited, I really feel sorry for you.

This is what they did. On Mars. Really.

Facebook and the world press were full of congratulatory posts and stories overnight after NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology succeeded in landing a rover on Mars. The technical achievement — the paragraph above is not hyperbole — rivals the 1969 moon landing, adjusted for knowledge inflation. It was a great evening for science and the imagination.

And for celebrations. Lately especially, we have all manner of opportunities to watch televised expressions of joy or disappointment. The Olympic Games’ mission is to glorify sport, so these extremes can be forgiven. After all, the winners — and losers — have invested enormous portions of time and spiritual energy into their quests for excellence and recognition. It may momentarily seem silly to watch someone cry, hard, over winning or losing a race. Sports are recreation, after all. But Olympic athletes get a pass. The intensity of their commitment can have no other emotional outcome.

More problematic are the celebrations we see at a much lower level in sports. The whooping and hollering of middle-aged parents at a six-strikeout game for a 12-year-old pitcher has become a cliché, and not a very funny one. (Reason: same kid could get six straight hundreds on reading quizzes and the same parents would shrug and say, “That’s nice” while continuing to open the electric bill.)

Recent television commercials I have seen do nothing to diffuse the notion that sports achievement is all that anyone really cares about, and that chemistry or insert-your-favorite-scientific-specialty here is for losers and wonks. A local cable network that carries high school sports combined amateurish editing, overdramatic music, and a cheesy voiceover to suggest that a high school baseball no-hitter was the pinnacle of life. At age 17? That’s sad in itself, leaving out the fact that….it’s sports. Recreation. Important to be sure, but not all there is.

People gathered in New York City’s Times Square at about 1:30 a.m. ET Monday to watch the Curiosity scientists watching Curiosity land had the right attitude.

Another ad, this one in national distribution (I’m sorry; I don’t recall what it’s for), is a 60-second chronicle of a father schooling his son in football from an early age. They work on form, lift weights together, talk through problems….until years go by and the son plays a great high school game. Afterwards, he finds his father in the stands and they hug in such a way that you know the father is as proud as he can be, heart overflowing.

All well and good. But what if the kid had discovered a gene that would lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s? Would the moment be as dramatic? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have the dramatic overlay that sports provides. Still, no one could reasonably argue that the football accomplishment was 1/1,000th as important as the gene discovery.

Yet the ratings-mad media continue to press on sports as the only worthwhile glory, and people buy it.

At CalTech, real joy, just as rightfully earned as a gold medal.

That’s why it did me so much good to see the JPL technicians celebrating (scroll down and watch the video in this excellent minute-by-minute account from The Telegraph in the U.K.) It was the victory of pure, wonky hard work and patience, the application of learning, knowledge and skill to a difficult problem, as a team. They endured years of uncertainty, capped by the Seven Minutes of Terror while they waited for the space-delayed communication of whether their enormous investment of time and spiritual energy survived. Not won — survived.

Now, if your heart-aura is still cold and your mind is still unboggled, you need to let your mind get out more.

Into the universe. — Adam Barr

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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