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.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
An interview with the Associated Press shows President Trump slowly coming to terms with the size of the government he now runs, and the challenges he must tackle.
Every president faces a steep learning curve when he enters the presidency. There is, as John F. Kennedy, wrote, no school for commanders in chief. Yet even by that standard, recent interviews show a Donald Trump who is genuinely surprised by the size of his duties, the interests he must balance, and the methods required to get that done.
On Sunday, the Associated Press released a transcript of an interview with the president last week. It deserves to be read in full: It captures his constant evasiveness on facts, preferring hyperbole, for example, and his detachment from reality—when asked about a “contract with the American voter” on what he’d achieve in 100 days, Trump dismisses it, saying, “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.”
The early results out of a Boston nonprofit are positive.
You saw the pictures in science class—a profile view of the human brain, sectioned by function. The piece at the very front, right behind where a forehead would be if the brain were actually in someone’s head, is the pre-frontal cortex. It handles problem-solving, goal-setting, and task execution. And it works with the limbic system, which is connected and sits closer to the center of the brain. The limbic system processes emotions and triggers emotional responses, in part because of its storage of long-term memory.
When a person lives in poverty, a growing body of research suggests the limbic system is constantly sending fear and stress messages to the prefrontal cortex, which overloads its ability to solve problems, set goals, and complete tasks in the most efficient ways.
A machine mapped the most frequently used emotional trajectories in fiction, and compared them with the ones readers like best.
“My prettiest contribution to my culture,” the writer Kurt Vonnegut mused in his 1981 autobiography Palm Sunday, “was a master’s thesis in anthropology which was rejected by the University of Chicago a long time ago.”
By then, he said, the thesis had long since vanished. (“It was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun,” Vonnegut explained.) But he continued to carry the idea with him for many years after that, and spoke publicly about it more than once. It was, essentially, this: “There is no reason why the simple shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers. They are beautiful shapes.”
That explanation comes from a lecture he gave, and which you can still watch on YouTube, that involves Vonnegut mapping the narrative arc of popular storylines along a simple graph. The X-axis represents the chronology of the story, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represents the experience of the protagonist, on a spectrum of ill fortune to good fortune. “This is an exercise in relativity, really,” Vonnegut explains. “The shape of the curve is what matters.”
With Benoît Hamon’s defeat, his Socialist Party may be obsolete.
In the first round of a French presidential election, there will, naturally, always be more losers than winners. But until Sunday, the Socialist Party had lost in the initial round only once before: In 2002, when incumbent Prime Minister Lionel Jospin unexpectedly finished a close third, behind a surprise surge from the National Front’s leader (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen.
This year, independent-centrist Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine, now leader of the FN herself, will move on to the final round on May 7. The Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, finished an unprecedented fifth. His loss feels very different from Jospin’s of 15 years ago, and not only because his paltry share of the vote was so much lower—just over 6 percent compared to Jospin’s 16.
The president has been frustrated on many fronts in his first hundred days, but on his watch, unauthorized border crossings have fallen sharply.
Obamacare remains the law of the land. So does NAFTA. Tax reform exists only as pixels in a tweet. Infrastructure ain’t happening. Five months after the Republicans won united control of Congress and the presidency, it seems uncertain whether one-party Washington can avoid a government shutdown over a budget dispute.
Yet as Day 100 of his presidency nears, President Donald Trump can take credit for one huge accomplishment, an accomplishment more central to his election campaign than any of the unfulfilled pledges above. Illegal immigration into the United States has slowed dramatically. The Department of Homeland Security reports that illegal crossings across the southern border plunged 40 percent in the first month of the Trump presidency, the steepest decline in illegal migration since the recession of 2009. Illegal immigration by family groups with children has dropped by over 90 percent.
By antagonizing the U.S.’s neighbor to the south, Donald Trump has made the classic bully’s error: He has underestimated his victim.
When Donald Trump first made sport of thumping Mexico—when he accused America’s neighbor of exporting rapists and “bad hombres,” when he deemed the country such a threat that it should be contained by a wall and so clueless that it could be suckered into paying for its own encasement—its president responded with strange equilibrium. Enrique Peña Nieto treated the humiliation like a meteorological disturbance. Relations with the United States would soon return to normal, if only he grinned his way through the painful episode.
In August, Peña Nieto invited Trump to Mexico City, based on the then-contrarian notion that Trump might actually become president. Instead of branding Trump a toxic threat to Mexico’s well-being, he lavished the Republican nominee with legitimacy. Peña Nieto paid a severe, perhaps mortal, reputational cost for his magnanimity. Before the meeting, former President Vicente Fox had warned Peña Nieto that if he went soft on Trump, history would remember him as a “traitor.” In the months following the meeting, his approval rating plummeted, falling as low as 12 percent in one poll—which put his popularity on par with Trump’s own popularity among Mexicans. The political lesson was clear enough: No Mexican leader could abide Trump’s imprecations and hope to thrive. Since then, the Mexican political elite has begun to ponder retaliatory measures that would reassert the country’s dignity, and perhaps even cause the Trump administration to reverse its hostile course. With a presidential election in just over a year—and Peña Nieto prevented by term limits from running again—vehement responses to Trump are considered an electoral necessity. Memos outlining policies that could wound the United States have begun flying around Mexico City. These show that Trump has committed the bully’s error of underestimating the target of his gibes. As it turns out, Mexico could hurt the United States very badly.
Plant proteins called lectins are an emerging source of confusion and fear.
Two weeks ago, a publicist sent me an early copy of a book that claimed it would change everything I thought I knew about food.
That happens a lot. This one caught my eye because it warned of the “hidden dangers lurking in my salad bowl,” and I was eating a salad.
The book, The Plant Paradox, has an image of an artfully smashed tomato on the cover, and it tells readers that eating tomatoes is “inciting a kind of chemical warfare in our bodies, causing inflammatory reactions that can lead to weight gain and serious health conditions.”
Tomatoes and ill-timed references to chemical warfare are, apparently, only a small part of the problem. The Plant Paradox urgently warns against eating wheat, beans, and peanuts, among other plants.
An exploration of syndromes that are unique to particular cultures.
You can’t get your genitals stolen in America.
At least, not while they’re attached to your body. But people can in Nigeria, Benin, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong. In all of these places, there have been cases of koro (also called suo yang in some places), “a cultural syndrome where people feel like their genitals are being sucked into their body,” says Frank Bures. “And there’s a fear of death.” It’s often thought to be caused by some kind of curse, or spell, or spirit—something otherworldly.
This is the condition that sparked Bures’s interest and led to his new book The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes.In it, he investigates mostly penis theft, but also other examples of what are called “cultural syndromes” or “culture-bound syndromes”—conditions that only exist in, and seem to stem from, particular cultures. Other examples include “frigophobia” in China, “a fear of cold which has its roots in traditional Chinese cosmology of balancing between hot and cold”; running “amok” in Malaysia, when people go on a killing spree they can’t remember later; and “hikikomori,” in Japan, when people socially withdraw to the point where they never leave home.