In 2019, the biggest challenge the global community faces is not climate change, frustrating politics or income inequality. It is the sense of creeping cynicism, a propensity to see the worst in humanity and a “we are doomed” mentality.
This is a big problem because it makes it impossible to actually solve climate change, get involved in the political system or propose an economic idea for wealth inequality.
Being cynical can be helpful in analysing situations to avoid getting taken for a ride, but it is fairly useless when actually trying to make the world a better place.
That is why the image released yesterday by NASA, taken by the now-retired Kepler telescope, is a timely reminder. It should be inspiration to think beyond what is possible. It is an admonition of humanity’s tendency towards narrow thinking.
In our hyper-modern, hyper-speed and hyper-hustle cosmopolitan culture, the day-to-day grind it is easy to get stuck in a “this is the way things work,” mindset.
Then, NASA releases a picture that drives home how obnoxiously tiny this planet earth truly is; and it should prompt people to stop and think, “oh wait, maybe I don’t really know ‘how it is’.'”
The sheer amount of possibilities presented on one photo is a reminder of the many diverging paths any situation can take.
Plus, the history of Kepler itself should make people feel more hopeful about what is possible.
The telescope was originally designed to operate for three-and-a-half years. Assuming the possibility of things going wrong, NASA took precautions to make sure it had enough operations for six years. As the date approached, the team realised the weight of the spacecraft was significantly less than had been anticipated.
This allowed them to fill the spacecraft with enough fuel to operate for 10 years. Plus, in a celebration of physics, the Kepler instruments are powered by solar energy and the fuel is only meant for course correction. NASA leveraged the sun’s gravitational pull for most of the flight.
Imagine telling a cynic in 1969 that human beings would operate a space telescope for 10 years whereby a significant amount of the mission leveraged energy (solar, gravity) from by the sun. They probably would have said, “but that’s not feasible”.
Then there is the sheer childhood glee that comes from the results produced by Kepler.
Kepler discovered 2,600 planets beyond our solar system, proved that the galaxy has more worlds than stars and collected so much data that scientists expect to mine it for years.
“The “last light” image taken on Sept. 25 represents the final page of the final chapter ofKepler’s remarkable journey of data collection. It bookends the moment of intense excitement nine and a half years earlier when the spacecraft first opened its eye to the skies and captured its “first light” image,” wrote Alison Hawkes of the Ames Research Center in Kepler’s obituary.
Space has a unique ability to spark wonder. It makes us imagine the impossible, dream of the unachievable and work against the insurmountable.
Sure, we may not actually achieve our ultimate goals, but the place where we have landed is much further than anyone could ever have anticipated.
Kepler provides a useful example. The final photo has a lot of missing pixels. Why? Because the camera has broken multiple times along its journey. Was the final picture a beautiful tour de force of space exploration? No, not really. But it was really cool, and while today’s scientists may have hoped for a better picture, 10 years ago they never would have imagined even taking a photo.
Whether it is starting a company, saving the environment or helping the less fortunate, the first step is to approach the challenge with optimism. There will be a lot of bumps along the way, so if the mindset is wrong in the beginning, it will be impossible to succeed.
Remind yourself of the inner 10-year-old boy or girl and the sense of possibility that exists in their young brains. Try to emulate the children in our world and approach life with the same enthusiasm. Instead of thinking about ‘what is’, focus on ‘what could be’.
The retirement of Kepler, and the final photograph sent back to earth, should inspire optimism and, to quote Tom Hardy in the movie Inception,
“You musn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”