Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are high priests, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven, and
extraterrestrials are as gods -- benevolent, wise, and capable of
manipulating space and time.
Think about how you feel when you see the Earth from space or the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon. These images are achievements of science, sure, but they also have a religious feel to them; they tug at something deeper than engineering, something sublime. When viewed as a whole, space exploration has a lot in common with religion. It offers us a salvation narrative, for instance, whereby we put our faith in technology in order to be delivered to new worlds. Its priests, figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson, extoll its virtues in what sound like sermons. In its iconography, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven and extraterrestrials are like gods---benevolent, kind, wise, capable of manipulating space and time.
This idea of seeing space exploration as a religion has a long history, dating back to the Russians of the early twentieth century, many of whom self-identified as "Cosmists." From there it migrated to German rocket scientists like Werner von Braun, who took his ideas about space travel to America after the Second World War. Americans were slow to warm to space exploration. They saw it as a fantasy, but that changed as Americans began to regard technology with a new reverence in the postwar period. Today Americans are the most fervent Cosmists on the planet, even if manned space exploration seems to have stalled for the time being.
Albert Harrison, a professor of psychology at U.C. Davis, has been working on the psychology of space exploration since the 1970's, when he did research for NASA about the psychological effects of long-term space travel. Harrison was kind enough to send me a chapter of his forthcoming book about Cosmism, and the complex psychological motivations that underlie space exploration. What follows is our conversation about the past, present and future of space exploration as a religious quest.
In what ways does Cosmism resemble a religion?
Harrison: Well, the roots of this extend back to antiquity in early notions of sky gods and that sort of thing; it's telling, for instance, that the polytheistic gods of yesteryear lent their names to planets. In the modern era, Cosmism is generally thought to have originated with early twentieth century Russians. There are a couple different ways that you see the religious aspects of Cosmism. One place you see it is in the tremendous faith that both Russians and Americans have in technology; specifically, the idea that technology can solve the problems of humanity, and that we need to leave Earth to create a better society, to find, in some sense, perfection in space. You see this idea over and over when space exploration is discussed, the idea that we can leave behind the problems that plague society here on Earth and we create these wonderful new societies in space. There's a general resemblance in this thinking to religious views of heaven, and in particular notions of salvation.
Russian Cosmism actually preceded the Bolshevik Revolution, which meant that the first instances of it were culturally intermingled with the Russian Orthodox Church, which may have lent it some of these religious overtones. You see this kind of messianic approach to space flight, with people touting this deliverance that awaits man in the cosmos. In the twenties, Russian Cosmists talked a great deal about redeeming deceased individuals in space by reassembling the atoms of their bodies, bringing them back to life and letting them enjoy the "ideal society" of the Bolsheviks.
Now if you skip forward to SETI, which I conceive of as a part of space exploration, though it's certainly exploration at a distance, you find that it's premised on this view that any alien civilization capable of persisting long enough to make themselves evident to other civilizations will have passed through a bottleneck of technological adolescence, and as a result they're going to be very old and wise and almost godlike. There's a guy named Ted Peters who has done some great work on religious symbolism in SETI. He argues that it's pure mythology, this idea that these beings exist, that they're out there and they're smarter than us, and that they're good-natured and they're going to help us. From his point of view, it has all the markings of a religious myth. This religious, godlike aspect of extraterrestrials is particularly evident in the culture surrounding UFOs, especially in the 1950's and 60's.
You open your chapter on Cosmism with a quote from the rocket scientist Krafft Arnold Ehricke, where he says "The idea of traveling to other celestial bodies reflects to the highest degree the independence and agility of the human mind. It lends ultimate dignity to man's technical and scientific endeavors. Above all, it touches on the philosophy of his very existence." What do you take from that quote?
Harrison: I actually came across that quote in a paper by Marsha Freeman, who has done a lot of great work in the anthropology of space exploration. There's this recurring idea in the literature of space exploration, the idea that we can realize our human potential in space---with the implication that staying here on Earth would be to stagnating in some sense. Space, in this line of thinking, is a kind of ultimate challenge for the intellect and capacities of mankind. This idea of self-actualization, and of exercising your potential, was very popular in humanistic psychology during the time when some of the threads of Cosmism were coming together.
You point out is that although we tend to view space travel as an activity that transcends borders, we also see it as something distinctly shaped by national identity. Why is that?
Harrison: Well, one reason is that it takes a particular society to sponsor a space mission. Space exploration is pursued on a national scale, and so as a result you see that it can have these nationalistic overtones.
If you look at the way Americans think about space, you see different ideas at play, than those that motivated Russian Cosmists. American space exploration is informed by ideas about westward expansion and manifest destiny, this sense that Americans are explorers and pioneers. We put a lot of emphasis on the individual, on individual initiative and accomplishment, on freedom and democracy---these are the kinds of things that come out when we talk about our ideals, and they're reflected in our ideas about space exploration.
Russia is very different; going back to the Czarist era, Imperial Russia was quite large and successful and expansionist, but after the Bolshevik Revolution the Russian Cosmists looked even further----they hoped to spread their revolution around the world and then eventually out into space, uniting everyone under a common political framework.
"Our triumph in space is the hymn to Soviet country"
You identify Russian Cosmism as the first example of this kind of thinking. I wonder why Cosmism would have started in Russia and not the British Empire, given that you had institutions like the Royal Society there.
Harrison: That's really interesting; I haven't looked at it from that specific angle. From what I can tell about early Russian Cosmism, it seems to have come on through the spread of literacy, through a reading revolution so to speak. There was interest in trying to elevate the thinking of people in Russia, including people of humble origins and means, and so in the late 19th century, popularizers of space started appearing in Russian culture, early Carl Sagan types, and they found fertile ground because through literacy the population had become interested in a lot of different things---in astronomy, in the natural sciences, physics and chemistry and so forth.
The real pioneer of Russian Cosmism was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who had come up with some seriously good ideas about rockets and space travel---he was kind of the Russian equivalent of Robert Goddard. Tsiolkovsky had well-developed ideas about what it might be like to actually ride in a rocket and go to the moon in terms of microgravity and weightlessness and things like that. Also, you have to remember that the Russians of the twenties weren't yet completely sealed off culturally, and so they had heard about Robert Goddard and Herman Oberth, the German rocket pioneer, and that stoked their enthusiasm as well.
From the point of view of the Soviet state, there was a great desire to bring science to the masses, partly in order to establish Russian superiority in science in technology, but also as a way of modernizing Russia at a time when huge amounts of people were leaving farms for cities. The state even sponsored these special exhibits with sleek rocket ships and eerie simulations of distant planetary surfaces---they would create a landscape like you might find on the Moon or on Mars, with lighting and effects in order to make it seem real, and then you could walk through it.
After the Russians, you pick up the thread of Cosmism with the Germans, particularly German rocket scientists like Werner von Braun. Why did Cosmism bloom so effortlessly in German culture during the 30's?
Harrison: That was due to the strenuous efforts of a number of German scientists who were fascinated by rocketry; they went way out of their way to generate publicity by infiltrating the arts and music, and by forming rocket clubs and that sort of thing. They would write a lot, and try to have their ideas included in books and movies. Eventually they made a deal with the German government, and became associated with the military. Interestingly a number of the German rocket scientists were interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
When you get into the Nazi era, some of that interest seemed to wane---I'm not sure if Nazi Germany had much interest in using rockets to go to space. A lot of people considered it crazy and economically wasteful to try to go into orbit, or go to the moon, and of course the Nazis eventually had their hands full with other things.
You identify the "von Braun paradigm" as the vision of long-term space exploration set out by Werner von Braun. What is that paradigm and why does it remain so influential in our thinking about space today?
Harrison: The von Braun paradigm was set in the 1950's, and the basic idea was that space exploration would follow a logical sequence, beginning with suborbital flights, then orbital flights, and then the Moon and Mars. And for a while this paradigm looked pretty successful---we did have suborbital flights, then orbital flights, and we got to the moon pretty quickly afterwards. If you look at the discussions that followed, and the discussions today, you can still see this paradigm at work; people say we should go back to the moon, or on to Mars.
A lot of the success of this paradigm reflects von Braun's energy and insight and personability; he went out and mounted this massive campaign in the public media to get Americans interested in space. They did it through books, but also through magazine articles; they would recruit high quality artists to do artistic renditions showing these realistic spacecraft on the Moon and on Mars. Von Braun even worked with Walt Disney to produce Tommorowland in order to exhibit the promise of spaceflight, and he did a lot of straightforward lobbying, talking to politicians and so forth. One thing to remember about these rocket scientists like von Braun, Oberth and Ehricke is that they were renaissance men; they read widely in philosophy and religion and a variety of other topics, and they worked very hard to become good American citizens and to get along with neighbors, and as a result they were able to convince people that a lot could be accomplished in space.
But the predictive power of von Braun's paradigm didn't last. We haven't gone back to the Moon, or to Mars. My father's generation had an old saying "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," the idea being that if you were a blue collar worker who worked your way up the ladder, from mechanic to CEO let's say, it wouldn't last. You might be fine, you might leave some money to your kids, but they wouldn't be as responsible and motivated and so the generation that followed them would be back on the shop floor. And you see the same thing with space exploration---low Earth orbit to low Earth orbit in less than three generations.
An artist's rendering of a Mars base (NASA)
You note that, apart from the early work of Robert Goddard, space travel was considered a fantasy in America in the 1920's and 1930's. Why was American Cosmism so slow to take off?
Harrison: Well, for one, Goddard did a lot of his work in secret; he was very worried about patents and things like that. But the other thing you see is the rise of science fiction during that era, with comic books and newspapers and movies, and these actually made it harder for Americans to imagine space flight in the near term. There would be these artists' renditions that were very hard to take seriously. I'll give you an example: if you look at a lot of the drawings of rocket ships from the 1930's, what you'll see is something that looks like an airplane fuselage, except with windows all along the sides, as though the whole thing was a cabin. But where does the propellant come from? Comics like Flash Gordon went even further towards reinforcing the idea that this was fantasy or fiction, not reality.
Things changed during the Second World War. There was this rapid advancement in technology, with amazing developments like the atomic bomb and the V2. After the war people felt that we were starting afresh, that it was a brave now world---there was a sense that these technological fantasies could now be taken seriously and that led to new expectations for what science and technology could accomplish, which rendered the culture more hospitable to the idea of space travel. And then in the late 40's and early 50's the German rocket scientists really got to work in trying to win the American imagination.
How has American Cosmism been informed by broad cultural ideas about America, particularly the popular conception if its destiny?
Harrison: As I said before ideas like frontierism and manifest destiny were very influential, but also the idea of American Exceptionalism; the idea that we're special or different, and that it's up to us to take a leading role in world politics, and that it's up to us to set an example---space is of course a prime arena for this sort of thing. Again the imagery used was very important; the Americans that were supportive of space exploration were encouraged by these pictures that made it look very doable, whereas in reality some of these objectives weren't doable, or if they were they were extraordinarily expensive. NASA always released these fantastic artist's renditions, and it still does; there are great images on the web, convincing and awe-inspiring images of Moon bases and Mars bases and future spacecraft, things like that. The imagery surrounding the space station is especially interesting. The artist's depicted this large, clean, comfortable futuristic space station, whereas the actual space station is this cramped kind of place with wires and hoses running this way and that way. When the reality doesn't keep up with the imagination, people can lose interest.
A similar disconnect caused Russian Cosmism to lose a lot of support in the 20's; people didn't understand that these things were still far off, they thought that rockets would be going to the moon within just a few years.
You argue that space advocacy groups have taken up the mantle of American Cosmism in recent years---which organizations are the most emblematic of this effort?
Harrison: Well, what's interesting is how much the von Braun paradigm has driven the vision of these various space advocacy groups. There is a serious emphasis on Mars, for instance. The NASA Space Society is one example; the Frontier Foundation is another; and then you have organizations like the Mars Society, which is really quite rigorous---they put people through realistic Mars simulations in the desert to teach them how to accomplish the kinds of tasks that would be useful to a Mars expedition. You even see this in the government; every U.S. President that has articulated a "new" vision for space exploration has done so according to the terms of the von Braun paradigm: first, back to the Moon, and then on to Mars.
There have been some changes, especially with the shift to the private sector; it used to be that people thought that only the government could bring these things about. But overall, the ideas of the 1950's still propel a lot of this activity. Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, has written a lot about this, and he's argued that the von Braun paradigm doesn't really work anymore, because we're not getting results with it. We have to come up with a new vision for space exploration and it has to be one that doesn't depend upon humans going out there and doing all of the work. An ideal vision would involve a mix of optical and radio astronomy along with robotic missions, probes and flyby's and that sort of thing, a more modest role for humans in space, and then, finally, a new kind of probe---probes with human-level intelligence. A mix like that would have a much better chance of reanimating the space program.
What are the main documents or myths of Cosmism? Does it have anything we might recognize as scriptures? I'm thinking of something like the film Contact.
Harrison: Contact is a good example; if you look at it you see that the beings, the extraterrestrials it depicts, are superior to us. They have godlike properties even if we don't call them gods, despite the fact that they're benevolent and they can manipulate space and time and so forth. When you look deeper you see that Jodie Foster's character in Contact has this transcendental experience, and it has all the hallmarks of a religious epiphany; she even interacts with her deceased father at one point, much in the way that religious myths usually involve a reunion with dead relatives.
Another place you see this phenomenon is in the way we have made astronauts into saints. We see them as these icons that ascend into heaven, and we're loath to admit that they might have imperfections--- you especially saw this during the Apollo era. They were cultural exemplars and to some extent they still are.
It seems to me that over the past several years Neil deGrasse Tyson has become the most popular, high profile advocate of space exploration. Do you consider him to be a kind of high priest of American Cosmism?
Harrison: I'm not sure I'd use that term, partly because I worry about labeling specific individuals. I would say that there are people out there who are still preaching the gospel, the gospel that we should be moving into space because of these various benefits, etc. There are people who popularize this stuff; certainly Carl Sagan was one, Neil deGrasse Tyson is another, and then there are others who are less well known. One of the recurrent salvation themes you see with this group is the idea that space exploration will solve all of our problems, especially through the various technologies it will yield. Those are some of the hallmarks of Cosmism as I conceive of it.
Last question---are you a Cosmist?
Harrison: Yes, I think so. For me, I see space as an opportunity, a tough opportunity, a challenging opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless. I see SETI, both in its present and future manifestations, as a valuable activity, and I identify more and more with the cosmos the more I learn about it. We're going to have some neat technologies in the future and there are going to be some extraordinary discoveries as a result. If I had one magic wish, it would be to come back every five hundred years just to see how things are going for humanity out in space.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Some conservatives are defying expectation and backing the Vermont senator.
When Tarie MacMillan switched on her television in August to watch the first Republican presidential debate, she expected to decide which candidate to support.
But MacMillan, a 65-year-old Florida resident, was disappointed. “I looked at the stage and there was nobody out there who I really liked. It just seemed like a showcase for Trump and his ridiculous comments,” she recalled. “It was laughable, and scary, and a real turning point.”
So she decided to back Bernie Sanders, the self-described “Democratic socialist” challenging Hillary Clinton. MacMillan was a lifelong Republican voter until a few weeks ago when she switched her party affiliation to support the Vermont senator in the primary. It will be the first time she’s ever voted for a Democrat.
Prosecutors indict a Chicago police officer for first-degree murder, and release a “deeply disturbing” video of the shooting.
Updated at 7:54 p.m.
The city of Chicago released the dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald's final moments Tuesday evening, one day earlier than they had originally announced. City officials gave journalists a link to a third-party site where they would have a one-hour window to download the six-minute and fifty-three-second video clip. (City officials bizarrely cited “limited bandwidth” as the reason for for the time limit.) The website crashed almost immediately, but DNAinfo Chicago uploaded the entire video to YouTube.
The clip begins with a 45-second disclaimer then shows the police vehicle on which the dashboard camera was mounted travel to the scene. Five minutes and fifteen seconds pass before McDonald first appears, walking in the middle of a mostly empty city street near two other police vehicles. McDonald is walking at a brisk pace while carrying something in his left hand. (Police reports say it was a knife.)
If you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion. When Ben Carson was challenged about his claim that Darwin was encouraged by the devil, he replied, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” When the literary theorist Stanley Fish chastised atheists such as Richard Dawkins, he wrote, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” and described those who don't accept evolution as belonging to “a different faith community.”
Scientists are annoyed by these statements because they suggest that science and religion share a certain epistemological status. And, indeed, many humanists and theologians insist that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives exist alongside scientific ones, and can even supersede them.
The Speaker’s reformist ambitions fall victim to his need to manage the media cycle.
Before taking the speakership last month, Paul Ryan made a promise to fix a “broken” House of Representatives and return the chamber to “regular order.” Eschewing the centralized authority of his predecessor, John Boehner, Ryan promised to put legislative power back in the hands of rank-and-file members—something key House constituencies had been clamoring for.
Under regular order, House bills go through an often-lengthy process from subcommittee to the floor; they are vetted, debated, and amended before receiving a final up-or-down vote. A return to regular order is one of the few areas with serioussupport from both ultraconservative Freedom Caucus members and progressive reformers in the House. After all, legislators on both sides of the aisle want a chance to be heard, offer amendments, and share expertise. Ryan concurred: “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. When we rush to pass bills, a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Nobody’s focused on winning the peace. That’s a big problem.
In August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met off the coast of Newfoundland to outline a shared vision for the post-World War II era. The British prime minister was so thrilled to see the American president that, in the words of one official, “You’d have thought he was being carried up into the heavens to meet God.” The two countries issued the Atlantic Charter, which sought “a better future for the world” through the principles of self-determination, collective security, and free trade. The United States hadn’t even entered the war yet, but it was already focused on winning the peace. The endgame was not just the defeat of the Axis powers, but also the creation of a stable global order, in which World War II would be the last world war.
The ambitious effort that could transform the institution and inform how other campuses respond to student protests.
Every university responds to student protests in its own way.
Earlier this month, scores of Brown undergraduates formed a circle on a quad and listened as black classmates expressed pain, anger, and frustration with campus life, following the example set by their analogues at the University of Missouri and elsewhere. Kate Talerico of The Brown Daily Herald recorded several powerful speakers and a diverse crowd that listened attentively and occasionally snapped to signal their agreement.*
Here are some of their words:
Candice Ellis, the first student to appear in the video, declared, “We begged this university to hear our stories about how racism, sexism, and a whole host of other problems prevail … and prevent us from being safe, from being at peace, from being whole and from being well. They invite us to meetings in the president’s office and the faculty club. They say they listen. They say they hear us. They do nothing.”
One thing I’ve learned during my Obamacare pregnancy: Sometimes the only way to get quality information in the American health-care system is to be a nuisance.
Being on Obamacare has, for me, been a first-rate education. Before I chose my own plan off of my state’s exchange, I had always been fortunate enough to receive quality health care through my employers, insurance that came with neither deductibles nor drama, and as a consequence I knew remarkably little about the realities of the health-care industry. I lived in a state of comfortable innocence when it came to real costs.
Much of the political inertia on health care in this country came from exactly that state of comfortable innocence. If a person likes his plan and his doctor, and if he himself has not yet been forced into bankruptcy because of ever-escalating bills, why then should that person believe the system at large needed work? And yet a system can be terrific for an individual and terrible for a country overall.