Why We Explore: Greed, Voyeurism, Curiosity

Why would so many people take time off from their smart phones to watch the Transit of Venus through a telescope? According to Bill Nye, it is our human desire to explore. If we ever lose that desire, we're not going to move forward as a species.   

If you're a space junkie like me, there was quite a lot to take in this week. And it was all pretty exciting. First there was the splashdown of SpaceX's Dragon capsule after its first successful delivery run to the International Space Station, a landmark mission for the commercial space industry.

In other news, two Hubble-sized spy telescopes were turned over to NASA for potentially groundbreaking use in the hunt for dark energy. Also, a Dutch venture announced plans to colonize Mars in the next decade, all for the staging of a reality TV show. More on that later. 

What's the Big Idea?

A range of powerful drives make up our distinctly human urge to explore. We're competitive. We're greedy. As seen in our fascination with reality TV, we are both voyeurs and exhibitionists. And yet, I would argue that a healthy human curiosity is linked to all of these drives, and that is why the one event that truly captured the public's attention this week was the Transit of Venus. 

This rare astronomical phenomena has only been observed six times since 1639. Each occurrence is in many ways a measure of our scientific progress, as we have come to understand more and more about this event every 100 years and change

Let's call that a significant measure of human progress. After all, a world war was interrupted so a group of scientists from warring European states could observe Venus passing directly between the sun and Earth. That happened during the French and Indian War in 1761 when astronomers passed through enemy lines to observe the transit and ultimately solve "the noblest problem in astronomy," the size of the solar system. 

Screen shot 2012-06-05 at 12.33.14
A crowd gathers in New York City's Union Square for the Transit of Venus

Waiting for the sun to peek out

Why would so many people take time off from their smart phones and look at the sun through a telescope? According to Bill Nye, aka, 'the Science Guy,' it is our human desire to explore. If we ever lose that desire, Nye says, we're not going to move forward as a species.   

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

Our thirst to explore satisfies many needs. We're not just talking about curiosity-for-curiosity's-sake. Nye says it is essential to prosperity. For instance, Nye describes space exploration as a “trickle-up investment.” In other words, when you get "a bunch of well-educated people running around in society," Nye says, "it raises the level of intellectual achievement for everybody."

But where will the investment come from?

Government dollars have become notoriously hard to come by for space exploration, and as we warned in a previous post, the U.S. is not only losing the initiative in space, but perhaps in fundamental research in general. This of course means that innovation will have to come from elsewhere, namely crafty entrepreneurs. By that we're not just talking about an Elon Musk or a Peter Diamandis

I think that as a species we're good at spotting a winning idea. That means that while the first wave of explorers blaze the trail, the next people on the scene are the opportunists. 

There was a predictable pattern, for instance, in the silver and gold rushes of the 19th century in the western United States. First would come the prospectors, soon to be followed by the salon owners with their whiskey and prostitutes. In today's context, this second wave of space opportunists happen to be reality TV producers. 

'The Whole World Will Be Watching'

This week we heard of a Dutch company's plans to set up a colony on Mars by April, 2023 (how precise they are!) with the hope of staging a reality TV show to finance the project. 

On its face, it's not an absurd idea. After all, the company, called Mars One, has the backing of a Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist and the creator of the Big Brother reality TV franchise. 

Mars One hopes to finance its mission by creating "the most spectacular media event ever, watched by everyone on the globe." That's not a bad business plan, considering that some 500 million people worldwide watched the LIVE transmission of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon in 1969. Who wouldn't wanted to watch The Real Housewives of the Red Planet? But there's a catch for the cast and crew: it's a one-way ticket. They would be signing up to stay on Mars for the rest of their lives. 

Watch here:

Still skeptical? You're not alone. So were the users on a Reddit forum where Mars One CEO Bas Landsdorp fielded questions. "This is almost certainly a publicity stunt," said one Reddit user. "Your answers are nontechnical, imprecise, absurdly optimistic, even quixotic."

Whether or not Mars One is for real (and I am actually one to give the company the benefit of the doubt), this is just another aspect of the human drama that is unfolding in what is mankind's penultimate quest to peek outside of our little corner of the cosmos. Call it voyeurism. Call it greed. Call it clever entrepreneurship. Or maybe it is just part of our nature, and some might say destiny, to explore. And all that comes with that... 

In the meantime, we're on the lookout for casting calls. 

Images courtesy of Solar Dynamics Observatory, Daniel Honan

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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