Knowledge: The Final Frontier
by Aeshna Chandra on Thursday, March 10th, 2016
Captain Caro McAlmond (I) is an avid space nerd, as anyone who speaks to her for longer than five minutes will know. “I’ve been interested in space since I was little,” she explains. “I had a Buzz Lightyear costume that I would wear constantly. I grew up watching Cyberchase and stargazing with my dad.” She took Astronomy first semester and Cosmology and Modern Physics second semester with science teacher Mr. Kernohan this year. According to Capt. McAlmond (@capt.caro.mcalmond), she “also almost went to space camp” but is now too old to enjoy that specific experience. As for Mr. Kernohan, he also operates Milton’s very own Ayer Observatory, used by both the classes and the entire school for special occasions, and is the sole teacher for these courses. The school also has a portable planetarium, per Milton’s website.
For the larger population, space is perhaps less of an obsession than it is for the Captain. Most of us will recognize at least one certain image of space. It’s a familiar one: a white-grey machine, often composed of parts that rotate or stick out, along with cylinders joined by thin tubes. One half of the picture is taken up by a part of a large planet, usually showcasing either Earth’s blue and green surface or Mars’ red one. 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was among the first movies to popularize this image. A decade later, arguably the most famous movie spaceships in the world were showcased in the first Star Wars in 1977. Star Trek: The Original Series debuted in 1966, and Planet of the Apes in 1968 as well. Even earlier, the 1950s were labeled the ‘classic era’ of science fiction as a result of the many movies released during the decade.
According to pop culture scholar Cydny Hendershot, two main events influenced the skyrocketing interest in science fiction during this time: one, the development of the nuclear weapon and second, the Space Race between the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The atom bomb ignited public interest after its deployment in Japan in 1945, especially when the USSR also successfully developed the technology in 1949. Yet the Space Race was an even larger, and longer, public spectacle.
Beginning in 1955, when the Soviets indirectly challenged the US to a race to launch the first satellite into space, the Space Race peaked with the 1969 moon landing. In 1957, the Soviets were the first in space with the launch of Sputnik 1. It ended in 1977 when the two countries agreed to collaborate.
For most of my lifetime, interest in space has been at its lowest in recent history. In middle school, when I watched the Disney Channel Original Movie October Sky, the biographical depiction of a West Virgina coal miner’s son who, with his best friend, wins a rocket-designing competition at the time of Sputnik, very few people in my class knew or cared about US space history. In eighth grade, when we visited the National Air and Space Museum, the most visited attraction was the anti-gravity simulator, not any of the many rockets that had actually been into space. The landing of the Mars Rover was acknowledged predominantly among the scientific community and people who were alive for the Space Race and less so by younger generations. NASA’s budget, too, peaked in the mid-1960s and dropped to a fraction of that amount in the past thirty years. In my memory, the most controversial space event in the past decade was Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet.
Yet, in the past few years, interests levels have once again risen. Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, the new Star Wars movie, the new Star Trek movies, The Theory of Everything, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Twitter fame, Bill Cosby’s reappearance in the media, the TV show Cosmos, and more have revitalized the American public. The success of the Voyager mission, SpaceX’s dream of colonizing Mars, and the recent validation of the last unproved part of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (gravitational waves) have also brought sci-fi’s scientific basis to a forefront. Captain Caro explains, “Our generation may not be as obsessed with space as ones that grew up with the Space Race, but we are witnessing great advances in man’s ability to discover and potentially colonize new worlds.” I think this rising interest is great—involvement in what our government does, especially as it concerns the future of our species, is key. However, I also see a larger point in this situation.
Recently, I have had many arguments with fellow students about the true point of education: is it, as some believe, meant to prepare a student to be the best job applicant possible, or is it meant to educate one about all areas of human discovery? In my opinion, for millennia, people have not spent their time and energy investigating the mysteries of the world—such as calculus or biology—for only a small group of scientists to know and understand. Authors from Plato to Shakespeare to Junot Diaz have not written to be forgotten; their works should be appreciated through teaching. As the famous George Santayana quote goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In addition, if people are interested in space, a niche subject, and NASA, an organization that only has around 18,000 full-time employees, finding a job is clearly not their only motivation to learn about something new.
Bothering to go to school just so you can find a job later in life is the absolute wrong motivation; it is as important to be aware of what humans have accomplished and to understand how the world around us works as it is to be a competent worker. Education reform, in both high school and college, has been a popular conversation in recent months, with many graduates of elite institutions arguing that their alma maters did not prepare them well enough for a successful career. However, this type of reform is ignoring the true meaning of education. In both grade school and higher education, students should be required to take many different courses, not just types of courses, regardless of major or interest.
Learning can be interesting: just look at the variety in the Accelerated Calculus students’ projects about integration or the different language-based exchanges that allow a student’s speaking skills to improve drastically. I do not think school should be only a playground for experimentation—grades are important and should not be removed—but it should incorporate fun into the learning. Captain Caro’s reason for her love of space is that she is “fascinated with planets and with the idea that we could understand something infinitely larger than we are.” Thinking of education reform only in terms of future money earning potential is the opposite of her altruistic, academic motivations and can be categorized as nothing less than undeniably greedy.
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