News broke Monday of one of the most significant scientific discoveries in all of human history: alien life in our solar system. An international team of astronomers using powerful telescopes discovered signs of microbial life in the atmosphere of Venus. They found a chemical, phosphine, in one of the planet’s cloud layers, and the existence of phosphine, these scientists say, can only be explained by the presence of life.
It’s the kind of news that, in normal times, would have captivated the world. Life on Venus! Questions and possibilities abound. Is it dangerous? Where did it come from? How does it change our understanding of the solar system or what makes a planet habitable? When and how will we launch an expedition to collect physical samples of the Venusian microbes? Does this mean we’re not alone in the universe after all? What else might be out there?
But these are not normal times. In less than a day, the news cycle had moved on. By Tuesday, the discovery of alien life on Venus barely registered. On Twitter, a funny PSA by Paul Rudd imploring millennials to wear masks was trending, along with news that the Scientific American is endorsing Joe Biden.
Wildfires out west, an Arab-Israeli peace deal, and the presidential campaigns dominated the headlines. The New York Times ran a single article about the Venus discovery in its Science and Technology section, and the Washington Post ran a column.
But how important is the Venus discovery? After all, it’s just phosphine and microbes in the atmosphere of Venus. It’s not like The New York Times reported the military has had documented encounters with strange unidentified aircraft for years, or that the Pentagon has since 2007 maintained a secretive program to investigate UFOs. Right?
But of course, the Times reported both of these astounding stories, the first back in April and the second in 2017, and no one really cared. In July, the Times revealed that despite Pentagon statements that it had disbanded the UFO program, the effort remains underway, “renamed and tucked inside the Office of Naval Intelligence, where officials continue to study mystifying encounters between military pilots and unidentified aerial vehicles.”
Our Lack Of Interest In Space Is a Sign Something Is Wrong
Consider the implications here. Two of the most consequential stories in human history — the discovery of alien life and documented footage of what appear to be alien aircraft — have more or less been met with a collective shrug by the mainstream media and the American public at large. Sure, there’s a pandemic underway and a presidential election looming, and yes, protests and riots are still afflicting some of our cities. People have a lot on their minds, and there’s a lot to process even without the possibility of alien life impinging on our daily lives.
But you would think that discoveries of this magnitude, of such consequence, would at least pique our curiosity. You’d think it would elicit some sort of conversation—about our place in the cosmos, the existence of God, the future of life on earth, the need for a renewed push to explore space. Something. Instead, we’re passing over all these questions and conversations in favor of what can only be characterized, in context, as lesser concerns.
There’s a reason for that, and it has much to do with waning confidence in our civilizational project. A society that actively tears down and distorts its past has no real interest in its future, near or distant, and momentous events that might have once united us, like the discovery of the Venusian microbes, or UFO footage, or even a space shuttle launch, no longer do.
These days, they seem to do the opposite. Consider the successful launch of SpaceX’s first manned flight in early July — a historic occasion marking the first time NASA astronauts launched from the United States in nearly a decade, and the first time a private spaceflight company sent a crewed spacecraft to space. Shortly afterward, The Verge ran an article that seemed to capture why we’re no longer impressed with space exploration. Headlined, “A Rocket Launch Can’t Unite Us Until The Space World Acknowledges Our Divisions,” the article complained that spaceflight “seems to exist in a bubble,” far removed from the pressing issues of the day, like racial justice.
But if anything exists in a bubble, it’s our myopic culture. Last month, NASA announced it would be changing the names of astronomical bodies that are deemed to be racially insensitive. Averring that since it has become clear that “certain cosmic nicknames are not only insensitive, but can be actively harmful,” NASA would be “examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” So much for ad astra per aspera.
Our ambivalence about space exploration and relative indifference to the discovery of alien life in our solar system should be a wake-up call. Only a society woefully lacking confidence in itself and the worthiness of its highest endeavors would react the way we have to these revelations.
It’s a sign, above all, of civilizational decline. We are dithering and bickering over who owes who for which past sins while a vast frontier beckons. If we have lost interest in that final frontier, it means we have lost something necessary for the preservation of our society: a desire to expand, explore, and discover new worlds.
Confidence is no small thing for civilizations. Without it, they die. The same impulse that now pushes us to obsess over past injustices, to tear down our monuments and erase our history, will also cause us to lose interest in our future—here on earth, and to the stars.