October 15, 2019

It’s All About Me (and Pluto)

NASA scientists celebrated a new landmark in space exploration, and human achievement, early Tuesday morning. After traveling for nine-and-a-half years and a distance of three billion miles, New Horizons — the fastest spacecraft ever to leave earth's orbit — successfully flew past Pluto, the farthest “dwarf” planet in our solar system.

If all goes well, transmissions of photos and scientific data about the dwarf planet, its moons, and other close encounters within the Kuiper belt — the third, outermost region of our known universe (comprising comets and over 100,000 miniature worlds) — will keep astronomers in thrall for at least the next 15 months. The baby grand piano-sized space probe is also expected to provide insights into the formation of our own solar system.

This astronomical success was 15 years in the making, and showcases American vision and effort and skill at its best. (We also happen to be the only country that's now “visited” all the planets, however you define them, in our solar system.)

A lot has happened in our world since the little spacecraft that could was launched back in 2006. I find it sad that news of its incredible success was overshadowed by an Iran deal whose main “mission” is to avert a nuclear holocaust — also made possible by the dual forces of human ego and scientific research.

Looking at the outline of the agreement, and concessions, rationally, I remain firmly in Bibi Netanyahu's camp: I believe this deal will prove to be a disaster in the near and (should we live that long) far future. But for now, I'll leave arguments about the details, both pro and con, to the more established political pundits.

What I will go on to grump about (in my own, social commentary, arena) is the all-inclusive and expanding aspect of our selfie-obsessed culture wherein everything, no matter the gravitas, is reduced to being “all about me.”

My husband uses msn email, and so is faced with the site's homepage upon logging on each morning. He should know better by now; still I heard him cry out in disbelief on the day before New Horizons' closest flyby. When NASA astronomers were already receiving and sharing never-before-seen images of our most distant dwarf planet, msn.com saw fit to cover the story in a video titled: “The Surface Of Pluto Seems To Have Some Strange Shapes.”

After a brief introduction that included the fact that the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh (the man who discovered the then-planet in 1930) were aboard the spacecraft, this news item quickly descended into public postings of what various viewers “saw” in the most recent fuzzy image of the planet's surface. Preciously illustrated submissions included the Disney dog Pluto (actually named after the planet), a large heart shape, and an elephant.

The report ended with a large red question mark atop the planet's latest picture accompanied by the words: “What do YOU see?” The tone reminded me of the drama inducing What Would You Do? hidden-camera TV show that casts an illuminating light upon human nature, but hardly suits this occasion.

I also find it unfortunate that so many Americans will limit what they “see” in both science and political news to dumbed-down yahoo and msn sites, and not search, as we ultimately did, for more in-depth coverage from sources like Britain's The Guardian and The New York Times. (The night after the flyby we also watched a well-produced, if somewhat repetitive, Mission Pluto documentary on the National Geographic channel.)

Perhaps, in some way, we have only ourselves to blame for the “all about me” culture. After creating popular student contests for the naming of Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and later Curiosity, we've conditioned the public to feel their input matters, no matter what.

But come on now. Do we really need to reduce this history-changing event to yet one more, lowest-common-denominator, “trending” meme of “Look at what I have to say about it?” Is the Socratic method of asking questions — how elementary school teachers are trained to retain student attention — necessary when addressing full-blown adults? Why do news aggregators feel the American public is interested in nothing more than staring at their reflections in the mirror and publicizing their personal reactions to everything they see? (And, yes, I know I've been using the Socratic method right now as well.)

Perhaps this need to be seen as part of the action was first launched in TV land by participatory game shows and talent contests like American Idol. Then viewers became involved in choosing the next Bachelor and Bachelorette. The latest videogame-based sci-fi dramas invite audience comment and live, gaming-type interactions while episodes are still in progress. Statistics from 2014 found 56 percent of American audiences engaging with other digital devices while watching TV — simultaneously tweeting and sharing their opinions (whether the show was designed for this or not).

Finely culled and chosen “Letters to the Editor” used to serve as a social barometer of public reaction to news reports and editorials. Nowadays, every online story is followed by instant streams of comments, and comments upon those comments. From the non-existent spelling and typos, not to mention the amount of nonsense spewed, it's obvious these opinions are hardly the result of serious, measured reflection — like what used to appear in “Letters” columns compiled from hand-written or typed mailings decades ago. Nevertheless, this slap-dash drivel is automatically printed right after every electronic piece of journalism — unchecked and unedited — for all to see.

In 2006 we were able to look outward and set sail for the far reaches of the universe. Somehow, I doubt that daring and vision, not to mention dedicated tax-dollar funding for space exploration, would make that dream possible today.

Most astronauts and many astronomers cite science fiction and fantasy magazines, along with TV shows like Star Trek, as early inspirations that fired their impressionable young minds with a lifelong vision of cosmic possibilities. So I admit, co-opting popular culture to promote science need not always be seen as a negative, and it has certainly proven to be an excellent way of engaging the public imagination.

Our first space shuttle orbiter was named “Enterprise” in homage to Gene Roddenberry's legendary Star Trek vessel, and the planet Pluto carries the name of the god of the underworld in classical Greek mythology.

In keeping with the “underworld” theme, New Horizons' team has looked to myth and literature in naming the various, now-more-visible formations on the dwarf planet. The early seen whale shape remains, and has been christened Cthulhu after an H.P. Lovecraft story deity. Menacing Balrog of Lord of the Rings is a named location; as is Meng-Po, the Chinese underworld goddess of forgetfulness and reincarnation. And newer imagery has very much confirmed a large, lighter-colored, heart-shaped region that is still being called, “the heart.”

Perhaps if fans of these stories, myths and romantic imagery are moved enough by Pluto's photographs to support the greater mission of space exploration, it may be worth a pinch of silliness in the end. And even a few “Name that shadow” Pluto selfies on Facebook.

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

Follow Mindy's essays of biting social commentary at: “>https://askmamaglass.wordpress.com