A Perfect World

Astrobiology Magazine

My reading of history tells me that as often as people wish and pray for peace, a world without war just never works out. So, I think that's naive, and I don't hope without having an anchor in what's plausible. Otherwise I'd spend my life being disappointed.

What I hope for plausibly is the continuing realization of the Copernican principle, which asserts in its simplest form that we are not special in this universe. No matter how special you think you are, you are not. Now, that's kind of the antithesis of what goes on in psychological therapy sessions for people who need to improve their self-esteem. When you realize that we're just little specks crawling around on a hunk of dirt, which is itself a speck in orbit around a single star that's just one among over a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, these are humbling facts.

It will be even more humbling when we find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, at least a fossil record. We know that wherever there is liquid water and the right ingredients, the natural course of evolution leads compellingly to life. So when we discover that life once existed on Mars or on Europa, say, that will humble us further. And I think that's an important posture to take. I call it the cosmic perspective.

You see people waging war, and ask, "Why?" When an astronomer asks that question, it's because in the context of the universe there's a limit to how much you can believe you're more important than someone else. So in that regard astronomers are the most utopian people around, because we're not burdened by any great concern about politics or national borders.

We also bring answers to questions that have prevailed for centuries and across cultures, like, "What is our place in the universe?" "Where is it going?" and "Where did it all come from?" We're starting to answer those questions now, so it's a happy time to be alive. We don't need to resort to mythology.

What I want to promote more than anything else in the world is rational thought, as opposed to irrational thought, which I think there is far too much of. For instance, there are always people who know about probabilities, who will take advantage of people who don't. It's hard to be a functioning member of society and not understand how probabilities work. The lottery is not a tax on the poor; it's a tax on people who don't do well in mathematics. I want to promote a world where people are trained in how to think rationally about how the world works. Knowing facts about science is important, but knowing how to think matters more.

If people were trained in how to think, we would live in a much stronger society, a society less prone to superstition. We're supposed to be masters of our own destiny. We're not supposed to be just victims; we're not just slaves to the forces around us. But if we abandon our intellectual powers, I would say we're an embarrassment to our species, and we might as well slither back down into the mud and join the rest of the worms.

Raising my children is the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I've ever done. I get no end of pleasure in watching their minds develop. Every weekend we try to do at least one science experiment in the kitchen, so that they begin to see how the world works and start finding patterns. Watching the young mind develop is a privilege and an honor, and it's the thing I want to do more than anything else.

I also give students much more attention than I give adults, because you've got to keep the wheel turning. When I was a student, I met with Carl Sagan in his office at Cornell and he spent time with me. He didn't know me from anybody; I was just a senior in high school. But I told myself then that if I were ever in a position of influence, I would model my encounter with students after how I was treated by Carl Sagan. And I have.

I regret that, in my capacity as director, I now do much less night observing than I once did. There's something emotionally fulfilling and even spiritual about your encounter with light at the top of a mountain. But I'm in a different chapter in my life now, where more of my effort is invested in helping others, and I certainly don't regret that.

At some point I realized that I was no longer just a scientist; I was a servant of society. That was a profound realization. It means I have a talent set and a pedigree that allows me to enrich other people's lives, so I can no longer be selfish. I can no longer say I just want to do my own work.

I love living every month into the future and I salivate over new discoveries we make about the world around us. There's no time in the past that I would rather have been alive. I see pictures made in the 1880s and say, "That's quaint." But you had to worry about polio. There were no refrigerators. Plus if I lived in those times, I'd be shining someone's shoes instead of being an astrophysicist. A hundred years before that, I'd have been a slave. There is no time in the past that I'd rather be living.