I believe in the fundamental human need for exploration.
When I was six years old, I saw Halley’s Comet through a telescope. It was a cloudy evening, and the comet looked like little more than a piece of glowing lint in the eyepiece. Nevertheless, I was enthralled. For years afterward, I spent countless hours staring into the night sky, trying to understand its vastness. What else was out there?
I am not the first person to feel this curiosity. Throughout the ages, humans have always wanted to push the limits of their knowledge. In the past, our own planet was an unknown place to the humans who lived upon it. Few ventured outside of their towns or continents. Those that did leave had many reasons for doing so, but they all shared an implacable desire to know what was out there. The earliest Polynesian explorers could not have known that the island of Hawaii lay in the middle of the vast Pacific, and yet they undertook this dangerous journey nonetheless. I believe this curiosity is a fundamental human characteristic. Regardless of the goals of individual explorers, the greatest achievement of these first earthly expeditions was to give humans a better understanding of their universe. This is the basis of what we call science: exploration of that which is unknown.
Many years after the appearance of Halley’s Comet, I became a college teaching assistant for an introductory class on the solar system. My students questioned the need for space exploration. Why, they asked, do we need to explore Mars when we could use those resources to help people on Earth? Why buy another rover when we could be feeding hungry people?
I maintain that it is not a question of choosing between helping people and advancing science through exploration: these goals are complimentary. The whole point of fundamental research is that we don’t know where it will lead us. At the beginning, there may be no obvious use for the information being sought. Yet history has shown us that we humans will put our gathered knowledge to practical use. The earliest experiments with electricity must have seemed quite impractical to most people at the time, and yet it is hard to imagine the world today without the technologies that have developed from that initial curiosity about electricity. These technologies have saved countless lives, improved the standard of living greatly, and even help get food to those who need it. Who can say what new information and technologies will come from our exploration of Mars?
I believe that exploration is a part of the human experience, and that without it we cannot grow. We must not limit our exploration to topics and places that we already understand. A whole universe lies before us. In the words of the astronomer E.C. Krupp, “Our place in the universe can be known only by knowing the universe.”
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.