Does anyone else think Space is REALLY boring?
On Saturday morning I read this blogpost and it's sent me into a bit of a rant. As I've put directly in a comment there, what annoyed wasn't so much the content of the post, rather the general discourse of space science it sampled. E.g:
The inspirational power of space and rocket ships [...] captivated and fired the scientific and technological imagination of a generation of young people. Some became the scientists and engineers of the Golden Age
When we talk about space in popular culture, we often use such lofty language. The sense that space, especially space exploration, can provide some 'inspirational power', ready to fuel a whole generation of scientists is also a familiar tune. There's been some controversy over manned spaceflight vs other space science recently, and this post isn't about that debate. What I want to pick out is the dependancy on superlatives.
It's not just rocket-science, astronomy similarly bangs on about the majesty of the night sky (and let's just draw a line under cosmology now). All this talk of how space is awe-inspiring/ exciting/ wonderful/ simply-just-the-most-amazing-thing-ev-er just makes me roll my eyes. I'm tempted to say its self-aggrandising, but I think I'll just settle on calling it boring. Mind-numbingly boring.
I respond to space hype similar way that I do to a lot of religion (and um, football, HD telly, some music, the odd film, several books, particular brands of chocolate...). I feel like I'm told I should be inspired, as if that's enough and no one needs to show me why. Lacking a solid and explicit basis for inspiration, I tend to think "that's must be something other people get", a matter of taste. I also get a tad wound up at the assumption that its all A Good Thing. You earn my respect; don't assume it. So, I shrug and turn my back. I have plenty of other things to play with.
Recently, I've become more aware that my stubborn refusal to drink the space-flavoured kool-aid means I've been missing out. So, I've been trying to engage with space news a bit more, and have to admit, am finding the various UK and USA funding issues fascinating. I've been listening to the Naked Astronomy podcast, and dragged myself to a public lecture on astrobiology last week. Aside from realising there's a lot more to space science than just the rockets, sparkly bits and big numbers I have previously written it off as, I might have, despite myself, noticed my jaw dropping slightly.
I'm not the only one who shrugs at space. Chatting with some friends a few days ago, one piped up with "You know, I think space is a bit dull" Then, after a pause: "Why do I feel like a dick for saying that?". I should note, this guy has a PhD in the politics of translating Zola. He isn't stupid. Aside from the intellectual-sounding thesis, he's a generally well-informed, opened-minded and thoughtful chap. He's not scared of talking about science, and even likes the odd bit of sky-gawping: he ran outside with me last week to stare at the Moon and Mars. I think it's telling that he feels a bit embarrassed about finding space a bit dull. There can be an implication in a lot of this hype that if you don't get it, you are somehow lacking a soul, or at least some understanding. It's a shame he lumps the whole of space together, but I can see how he might have got there, after years of being told "OMG! Spaceship!" or "See here children, the great inspirational majesty of Our Night Sky", and all he can do is nod politely. So, no: I don't think he is being a dick. It is just that other stuff has caught his attention.
If nothing else, I wish someone would cite more than anecdote when they bang on about about how we could solve all the problems of declining number of trained physicists if we sent more people into space. No one has, to the best of my knowledge, done any (reliable) work on this causal link between sending the odd astronaut into space and getting young people to sit through maths exams. It seems rather expensive, as education programmes go. You can throw all the biographies of scientists/ engineers at me that you like. I want to know about today, for 21st century kids.
Until such data is forthcoming (which I doubt it will be, though if anyone wants to give me a large research grant...) space-hypers should acknowledge that their rhetoric can dis-enchant as much as it may also act as a call to arms. You do yourself and your audiences no favours if you assume they already share your enthusiasm, or assume wonder is self-evident. The language of space science needs to extricate itself from its religious and military histories: cut all that bleeding reverence, loose the superlatives, inject a bit more piss-taking and get on with showing us some specifics of how great you are.