Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey

13Sep/14

All Hands on Deck Thoughts Evoked On Hearing A Science Star – Freeman Dyson – In Pasadena the Other Night

photo Dr. Mae Jemison; Prof. Freeman Dyson; Prof. Ed Stone; Dr. Leon Alkalai

An Interstellar Conversation at Caltech sponsored by the Keck Institute, Sept 9, 2014: Dr. Mae Jemison - Physician, Engineer, Former Astronaut and Leader of the 100 Year Starship Organization; Prof. Freeman Dyson - Physicist, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Prof. Ed Stone - Voyager Mission Project Scientist, Caltech; Moderated by Dr. Leon Alkalai - Ast. Div. Mgr, Systems Engineering & Formulation Division at JPL

Yes, it was one of those science fan nights for me at Pasadena's Caltech Beckman Auditorium last week. I've read most of Freeman Dyson's books and for years have admired his sensible approach to science as well as his accomplishments and ideas. There really is something special about seeing someone you have long admired in person. My niece Tess will wait for hours in line to hear Beyonce perform. I waited four hours once to hear Stephen Hawking talk in Santa Monica - and yes, it was worth it (not to mention the interesting people I met in line waiting with me - for there is also something intoxicating about knowing the people around you all share something of importance to you).

What I had not picked up on from Dyson's books was his fun sense of humor. When someone inquired about his concerns regarding communication loss once space travelers reach interstellar space, Dyson quipped that it might not be such a bad thing, considering that the tax collectors could not reach us out there.

Still, there was something eery about this evening's presentations. We are in the midst of a terrible heat wave currently in Southern California. 106 today as I write this post. It was close to that the evening of this lecture. The discussion with a former astronaut, Dyson, and the Voyager Mission scientist, was about plans to send humans in search of life on far off planets - through interstellar space. How will we fund it, what needs to be done to get us to that point, who is working on what? But all the while I could not help but be reminded of my favorite essay (another mystery as I read it years ago and have never been able to find it since, don't remember title, author, anything except the premise) which positioned a classical music lover treading water in the sea surrounding a sinking island which housed a chamber orchestra and attentive audience, water to their waists, refusing to budge out of politeness and denial as the island sank around them.

For it suddenly struck me as very odd that so many great scientists should be discussing how we are going to get to outer space when our own planet meanwhile is on fire. Now, I am sure some will say that we need people pursuing all sorts of ideas and plans if we are to move forward. But, as I said, it just struck me that we would be better off if all scientists, politicians, business people, citizens, artists, writers, everybody - would come together for a time to solve global warming, to get our own planet back on track, before we tackle any other big challenges. It seems that important. And to do otherwise, seems, well, arrogant and blind to reality.

Global warming is not somebody else's business, we need all hands on deck, please.

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