How Exploring Our Universe Opens New Conceptions of Reality

It's an incredibly exciting time to be alive, especially if you're an explorer. We may have been to almost every point on the globe, but there is so much left to understand.

Scott Parazynski: Why do humans explore? Well, part of it is quite fundamental to our nature; there’s adventure and challenge in it. But for me, the reason I’m drawn to exploration is because it forces us to think in novel ways. And as an inventor I love going into extraordinary environments and finding ways to do that more safely, more effectively, developing ways to extract better science. And so for me it’s actually been a wonderful catalyst for innovation.

Similar to NASA’s history—when you think back to the Apollo program, which is sort of the icon of my childhood, the thing that I wanted to be a part of as a kid, the things that had to be invented to safely send astronauts first into Earth orbit and then to the moon, the list is so long. But what came of that is an extraordinary list of technologies that we now take for granted. For example, the heart monitoring capabilities called the Holter monitor that we now have in daily practice around the world, that was something that was driven out necessity. We needed to monitor heart health, needed to make sure that the crew is still alive onboard those early tiny capsules. So by pushing our capabilities, whether it’s up in space, down in the Antarctic, inside volcanoes, underneath our oceans, we have to develop new technologies that benefit all the rest of us in our daily lives. And so the world is still very, very unknown and what I mean by that is yes we’ve been to most parts of our globe, but now we have a whole array of new sensing capabilities, new technologies, new analytical capabilities, big data analytics that will allow us to go back to these places and extract more knowledge and press our capabilities more. So I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and certainly as an explorer.

Through the course of our space program and our space exploration thus far, we’ve developed the tools and countermeasures to safely send astronauts, colonists, to far-away worlds. And so, as I’ve already alluded, I think it’s our human destiny to go beyond Earth to hopefully create an outpost on the moon similar to what we have at the south pole, where we could conduct deep space research and also create a waypoint to resupply spacecraft that could travel further on, to Mars and other exciting places in our own solar system. You may have heard of Enceladus or Europa or Titan, these are ice-encrusted moons of our outer planets that have geothermal or volcanic activity within them and so they’re actually ice-crusted oceans, and wouldn’t it be amazing if we could send a spacecraft and/or crew there and sample those waters? I would think that the likelihood of finding at least some simple life forms there is quite high. That would change everything, to realize that life is perhaps not as unique as we thought.

I think deep space exploration is a human imperative, understanding our place in the solar system and in the broader universe. And one of the exciting things that’s happening right now is we’re discovering these exoplanets surrounding far-away star systems, and in fact planets are probably not the exception but probably the rule. There are probably planetary bodies around every little star, twinkle twinkle little star that we see in the night sky and so it’s incredibly exciting to think about what might be out there. Is there life elsewhere? And I think if we just think about it statistically, the trillions and trillions of star systems and far-away galaxies and the incredible number of planets that are certainly out there, the conditions for life must certainly exist. So I’m excited about the prospect of sending, hopefully, crews first to the moon but then on to Mars and I’m really so excited about Elon Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars. In fact, he’s got designs to design rockets that would carry a hundred colonists at a time and taking them to live out the rest of their lives on Mars. He’s a pretty interesting guy, as I’m sure you know, he’s been successful at pretty much everything that he has set his mind and his money to do, but he’s so dedicated to this concept of colonization that he’s stated that he wants to die on Mars and I think that’s commitment. 

I’m really passionate about virtual reality and mixed or augmented reality in the future, ways in which we can interact and learn and train ourselves to do new things from very remote places. And it will allow us to actually control robotics and do things that we would never be able to do in person because that environment is so dangerous. So the human-machine interface is actually something that is part of my daily life now. I’m at CEO of a tech startup company called Fluidity Technologies that is based on my intellectual property, robotic controls, leveraging, machine learning. So we’re able, in a single hand with our controllers, to operate drones, potentially even helicopters and ROVs, computer games, computer-aided design, augmented reality and maybe even teleoperation of surgical robots. And so in my far-away view, what I’d love to be able to offer the world is a surgeon here in New York City being able to operate with one of our controllers and deliver the same high-quality care to a patient in sub-Saharan Africa or in rural Nepal. That sounds like science fiction, but it’s really quite attainable with the technologies that I see on the forefront.

Scott Parazynski is the only person in history to have both flown to space and summited Mount Everest. He's seen more of this world than most, and some of what lies beyond it—so what is it about adventure that draws people like him in? Parazynski thinks it's innate curiosity that drives us, but that the more we explore the more we gain other reasons to keep going. Humanity has benefitted enormously from pursuing "moon shots"—like the Apollo missions—and NASA's research in particular has pushed our capacity for innovation, resulting in spin-off technologies that create new industries and change people's daily lives (3D printed food, invisible braces, memory foam, scratch resistant lenses, the DustBuster—come on!). Why keep your feet planted on Earth, or your mind planted in the known, when there could be life under the ice-encrusted oceans of Enceladus or Europa, a new home waiting for us on Mars, and technology on the horizon that will connect a surgeon in New York City with a person in danger in rural Nepal? Scott Parazynski is the author of The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.