Brain Pickings

Isaac Asimov on Curiosity, Taking Risk, and the Value of Space Exploration in Muppet Magazine

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“To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.”

In the summer of 1983, Muppet Magazine invited science fiction icon Isaac Asimovsage of science, champion of creativity in education, visionary of the future, lover of libraries — to “a meeting of the minds,” wherein Dr. Julius Strangepork would interview Asimov. Despite the silly tone of German-inspired Strangepork-speak, the wide-ranging conversation touches on a number of timeless and surprisingly timely issues.

Three decades before the precarious state of space exploration we face today, as NASA is implementing new “cost-saving measures” at the expense of education and public outreach, Asimov speaks to the enormous cultural benefits of space exploration:

Dr. S: Personally, I like hanging around in space. I mean, it beats vatching reruns of de Brady Bunch. But how do you convince other people dat we should be schpending all dis money on space exploration?

Dr. A: By pointing out the benefits. The more we know about the solar system, the better we understand the earth. The very instruments we develop to explore the planets mean that we have better technology for use here on earth.

We now have weather satellites that tell us, for the first time in history, what the weather on the earth as a whole is like. Until we had these weather satellites, forecasting was nothing more than a local guess. We have satellites that study the resources of the earth, so that we know a great deal more about, for instance, where there are sick forests, or where grain is being attacked by some sort of disease, or how to locate oil. And, of course, communication satellites have bound the entire earth together.

On the relationship between space exploration and peace on earth:

I don’t think we can really advance into space until we learn how to cooperate as a planet. It’s not practical to have several different nations jostling and competing their way into space. It’s too expensive, too wasteful, and the benefits aren’t big enough unless they are for the entire planet.

On science fiction as lubricant for change:

My own feeling is that science fiction, of all the different forms of literature, is the one that most easily accepts the notion of change. Things are changing very quickly, and any kid who thinks about it knows that the world in which he or she will be a grown-up — which he or she will be helping to run — will be considerably different from this one. Maybe better, maybe worse, but different. Science fiction explores the future world.

I think more and more young people are beginning to feel that science fiction is the kind of literature that a person interested in reality should be reading.

On using precaution in balancing the risks and rewards of taking a chance:

There is always some risk [in discovery], but you learn to take precautions. When Benjamin Franklin flew his kite in a storm, suspecting that lightning was an electrical discharge, he realized perfectly well that he could get one grandaddy of a shock. But he didn’t just hold the string of the kite. He tied a silken thread to the string and he held the silk because he knew that silk does not conduct electricity. And he stood under a shed to stay dry. … He was taking a certain chance. But he took precautions. He experimented and he did his homework. Another guy tried it in much the same way Franklin did, and lightning jumped from the string of the kite and zapped him.

On the power of curiosity:

To make discoveries, you have to be curious about why the universe is the way it is.

Complement with Asimov’s 1991 essay collection The Secret of the Universe (public library).

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