Brain Pickings

Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate on the Spirit of Exploration

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On the heroism of curiosity, or what The Little Prince can teach us about longing for infinity.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who recently made a chill-giving case for the whimsy of the Universe, is among our era’s most articulate advocates and storytellers of science. On March 7, Tyson testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the economic, social, and cultural benefits of space exploration — an urgent message at time when space funding is at an all-time law and Carl Sagan’s vision lives on only as a poetic lament.

Tyson opens with a beautiful quote from French pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, better-known as the author of The Little Prince — a philosophy treasure chest all its own:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Any nation, any time, has the capacity to create a hero. It just has to have ambitions with goals set.

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If people see NASA as a charity agency for the satisfaction of some engineers and scientists, they are not understanding the actual growth NASA has played in the growth of this nation — and the economic growth of this nation.

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The pathway from the investment to the return on the dollar takes a little longer than an elevator ride to explain… Innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed, the culture of innovation spills over. Everyone feels like tomorrow is something they want to invent and bring into the present. That’s the culture that so many of us grew up with, and that’s the culture that so many of us who read about it want to resurrect going forward. Without this, we just move back to the caves.”

So what happened between the golden age of space exploration, when the design of the spacesuit was a feat of cross-disciplinary ambition and excitement oozed even from the ad pages of science magazines, and today? When did we forget that infinity beckons? Perhaps Muriel Rukeyser was right when she said that the universe is made of stories, not of atoms, but the stories we tell about those atoms are the fabric of our understanding, our culture, and our society. Without cosmic storytellers like Tyson, the universe would contract into a ball of anthropocentricity — next thing we know, we’re back to believing the Earth is the center of the universe.

Tyson’s new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, isn’t merely an eloquent case for space exploration — it’s an intelligent and necessary manifesto for rekindling an infinitely important torch of human curiosity.

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