Time to leave the capsule if we dare
Sometimes the boundaries between art and science melt away and the two orbit in delightful synchronicity. This week, while earthlings were mourning the passing of the incomparable David Bowie, in space Major Tim was daring to leave his capsule and take his first giant leap into the universe.
It would have been truly poetic had Mr and Mrs Peake named their son Tom. Alas we can’t have everything. The events on the International Space Station (ISS) represent a significant moment in the history of British manned space exploration.
Peake’s achievements will surely echo in eternity. They also represent a perfect juxtaposition to the breathtaking ignorance, which manifests its self daily in pointless conflicts being fought on the world far beneath his feet.
My favourite line from Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ is the wonderfully melancholic “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.” How depressing to think that, all these years later, this lyric still perfectly reflects the sense of sorrow and helplessness felt by so many of the planet’s inhabitants today.
It strikes me that the people of Earth stand at a fork in the road. One path, that of superstition and intolerance, leads inevitably to our destruction. To pain and misery, poverty and hunger. This is the road to hell. It’s paved by religious demagogues who are determined to take civilisation back to the stone age, and politicians who want to speed up the process with their bullets and bombs.
Sadly many have begun to stumble down this road, but there’s no requirement for the rest of us to follow. There is another path on offer. It’s one which leads to knowledge and progress. Follow this one and there is hope and freedom from ignorance.
Of course this is the path of scientific curiosity and exploration. You only have to look in the sky on a clear night and you can see it symbolised in the ISS tracing it’s course across the heavens. We don’t know what advances will result from Tim Peake’s heroics this week? However, we do know there will be many.
Scientists are often accused by theists of being arrogant and of thinking they have all the answers. However, the opposite is actually the case. The goal of scientific inquiry is to get as close as possible to an understanding of the universe, by continually asking questions and testing hypotheses. To paraphrase the brilliant Dara Obriain, if science thought it had all the answers it would stop.
In sharp contrast, religion and superstition teaches us that we can never question the word of an all-knowing God. At the same time it suggests that all of natures wonders are the result of his work, while all of our ills are the result of mankind’s sin.
Paradoxically those who challenge this supernatural explanation of the universe are accused of being ‘closed minded’. This is an accusation that has infuriated me down the years. The idea that religion and superstition are harmless, when they bring people comfort and succour during tough times also angers me.
In 1997 the great Carl Sagan published a book call ‘The Demon Haunted World, Science as a candle in the dark,’ It is both a work of art and a powerful argument for scientific thought. The following quote from the book perhaps best sums up why I have an issue with this line of thinking.
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
For me a world view based on an all-powerful deity controlling things only encourages us to accept our lot in life, no matter how awful it may be. This ‘if it’s meant to be, it’s meant be’ mentality is truly poisonous because it fails to see the endless possibilities open to us. If only we could just open our eyes to the fact that nothing is ‘meant to be’, we would see that we have more control over our lives than we are led to believe.
Again, Sagan puts it beautifully.
“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.”
Make no mistake, it has never been more important to hold those in power to account and put them to work on our behalf. Environmental calamity, poverty, disease and war are all scourges for which religion has no solutions to offer.
Instead it is the scientists, engineers and astronauts who built the space station, and who continue to work in peace for all humankind in the skies above, who are showing us the way to a better life. Do we have the courage to follow them?