Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Gift of the Son of Kronos and Rhea

New Horizon Simulation

One of my favorite former journalists asked this question online: "Why is this Pluto mission important? Sure, it is cool to see pictures of Pluto. But someone give me some context of why I should care beyond it just being cool."

She received many thoughtful responses. And they were similar to my own: "Discovery. Discovery is why we are here. Science is the search for God, the search for self, the search to understand. What's over that hill? What's behind that door? What's up there? Mankind has turned eyes to the skies and looked to the stars, and sought metaphors for the lanterns hanging in darkness."

Put another way, as human beings, we climb the mountain because it is there.

Our curiosity has taken a beating in the last 15 years. War, economic distress, cultural conflict, and the return of old agitations and conflicts taps our energies and diverts our resources to destructive purposes. 

And then along comes Pluto. 

According to Greek mythology, Pluto was the child of Kronos and Rhea. Plato described him as
a giver of spiritual wealth, ruler of the underworld and a vehicle for rebirth, and therefore worthy of worship. In modern culture, Pluto is either an animated dog or a (dwarf) planet with an eclectic orbit. The planet hangs out on the edge of the solar system, at the edge of the Kuiper Belt. And, until this month, it was an afterthought.

There are those who fuss about "cost." As it turns out, the nine-year, 3 billion mile journey cost about $700 million -- or about 20 cents a mile, or $201,000 a day. This is less than half the cost of Jerryworld or other new NFL stadiums. In constant dollar terms, it is about twice the cost of the film Titanic. In both cases there's a better show coming from near the Kuiper belt than from either of those other products.  And the down-stream educational and scientific benefits far exceed the costs, which you can't say for the Cowboys or for Jack and Rose.

But Pluto has given us a gift. The data and images coming in from the New Horizons craft are compelling, and contain tremendous surprises. Pluto is alive, geologically active, with an escaping methane and nitrogen atmosphere. There is evidently ice water on Pluto. And, it is water that makes things exciting. Water is thought necessary to life. Water is a fuel for potential space exploration. Water seems to be showing up everywhere. And Pluto is presenting a variety of new mysteries that need to be explored further.

I want to know why. And I want to know what is happening near that water. So too do many other human beings. And this is the gift. Curiosity.

Thank you Pluto.