When I was in the second grade, I was placed in a “gifted” program at my elementary school. While I might dispute the validity of that somewhat vague term today, as an 8-year-old this became a few different things to me. On the one hand, it was an opportunity for me to get out of my regular classroom one day each week and go do some things that were actually interesting to me (later it would involve getting on a bus and going to another school building for a day each week). On the other hand, for the first 2 years, it set me up as a target to be picked on and harassed by the various playground bullies I so loathed and ironically whose parents eventually persuaded the teachers that their bully kids were “gifted” too once we got to about the 5th grade.
That first year though was pretty amazing. The way the program was set up, each kid involved got to choose a project that they would then work on over the course of a semester. We would utilize the library, take
field trips, and our parents and teachers would help us learn as much as we could about our chosen topic. At the end, we would give a presentation of our research, complete with models, dioramas, slide shows, and whatever else and we would do this all in front of our peers. It was my first venture into the world of public speaking and for a shy kid, the presentation itself came with all kinds of anxiety. None of it was warranted but 8-year-olds don’t think like that.
When I was 8, I was enamored by outer space, and astronauts, and rockets. My parents had bought me a book about what the “future” might look like. It was complete with pictures and verbal descriptions of giant space stations, villages on the moon and on Mars, flying cars and all sorts of other really cool inventions. Many of them were not all that plausible but looking back it wasn’t really about the plausibility of those concepts becoming reality. It was about opening a child’s eyes to what reality could be. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to do all the things described in this book. For my first project in this “gifted” program, I choose to do research and a presentation on rockets. Those were the vehicles on which I would be able to fly into outer space to my orbiting space colony and from there I’d be in a position to visit
other planets and maybe even other galaxies. I studied early technology, I learned about Robert Goddard and the significant advances he made in rocket technology. Around this time (early 80’s) a show appeared on PBS called Cosmos. It was hosted by Carl Sagan and it was a fascinating series of TV shows dealing with everything from the origins of life on earth to putting some perspective on the Pale Blue Dot we called Earth. To say the least, that series was not only about the things that fascinated me, it became the foundation for my continued love of science, astronomy, discovery, and even photography. That show also introduced to me a man who would later in my life become somewhat of a hero to me.
Carl Sagan was at best agnostic. He was criticized many times for his views on religion and God but he never dismissed the idea that the laws of our universe were not simply illusions. He was incredibly bright, level-headed, philosophical, and even existential. And he was a Pulitzer prize winning author. I’ve read some of his easier books and the most notable thing about his writing is that his words flow so easily. He’s one of the few writers I’ve encountered who can make a single sentence that many English teachers would criticize as a huge run-on sentence and present it as a lusciously flowing and descriptive novel. He had the eyes and the vast knowledge to see reality in ways that were far too complex for many people and today his legacy remains one of forsight and deep thoughts and sadly, still too complex for a lot of people.
I recently came across a quote from his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” which, even though it showed up in my facebook feed as a Meme, provides some insight in to where his thoughts were then, and what we are seeing in politics right now.
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
It is with that, I am reminded that resistance of authority that is uniquely unqualified is important, resistance to a situation where submission to ignorance cannot become the norm. We must reflect on our history of that very resistance. We must, as a society seek the truth of our reality and we must not allow our progress as a species and as a nation to regress into the darkness of ignorance and submission. Carl Sagan foresaw our current Trump disaster and we cannot malign and push back the heroes who will step up to defend our progress on this Earth. We have a responsibility to get in the way of those who claim to speak for us when they do no such thing even when they behave like toddlers, unfamiliar and unaccustomed to not getting their way.
I still want to fly to outer space and live on a space station, and drive a flying car. I will not submit my dreams or my fears to the decimation of progress.