Stardust

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, December 29, 1995

Stardust is the name of the spacecraft whose mission was recently announced by NASA, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration. The impressive plan is to launch Stardust in 1999 on a journey which, after five years, will bring it within 65 miles of a comet named Wild-2. This comet was attracted into our part of the solar system just twenty years ago by the gravity of Jupiter.

The spacecraft will take pictures of Wild-2 and collect samples of the dust in its tail. Stardust will then return to Earth in 2006, seven years after launch. Imagine hitting a moving target five years away in the vastness of space. And then returning to a specific place on an Earth that has been in motion continously for those seven years. This is quite a feat of planning and design.

NASA's mission for the Stardust spacecraft brings to mind neurophysiologist William Calvin's theory about the mechanism which caused rapid enlargement in the brains of our ancestors. During the last two million years, human brains more than tripled in size - a very rapid change as evolution goes. Although bigger brains might be very useful, they also make childbirth much harder on the mother. Big brains must have had some very basic survival advantage for our ancestors. Calvin proposes that throwing stones to kill animals for food was the mechanism that caused this change.

Apparently, it takes enormous amounts of computing power to propel and release a rock just right to hit a target at a distance. To hit the same target at double the distance requires 64 times as many brain cells.

Calvin believes that "small isolated groups exposed to the selection cycles of winter every year and to ice ages every 100,000 years for several million years," provided the breeding ground for our most distinguishing feature - our big brain.

In wintery, life and death situations so long ago, those whose brains could perform the necessary calculations to hit a rabbit or other animal for food more likely survived and reproduced than those who couldn't throw accurately. With many small bands of people and millions of years, the large brain eventually evolved. Thirty thousand years ago, so-called modern humans with large brains, skilled at throwing and the capacity for thought and speech, supplanted Neandertals and other hominids.

Children's love of throwing rocks and the human love of games like baseball and basketball indicate some special status for throwing in our collective psyche.

NASA's goal does hitting a rabbit at 20 yards quite a bit better. Such an accurate mission is very impressive. I wonder why, when we can carry out such an amazing feat of planning, we are so negligent in addressing the many serious problems with which we are faced.

This fall, a United Nations panel of prominent scientists confirmed what other scientists and many insurance companies have believed for some time. We have already changed the climate, and we continue to change it at an unprecedented and alarming rate. Altered ecosystems, intensified weather patterns and extraordinary storms are more common. The insurance industry has begun to include global warming in its underwriting, because of the enormous costs it has already experienced. Earlier this year, a panel of scientists said that global emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced 60 percent to reverse the catastrophic effects of global warming in the future.

Yet we cheer lower gasoline prices, continue to buy larger and fancier cars, while we provide tax breaks to corporations which want to build more automobile factories. This doesn't seem like careful planning, to me.

Of course, we don't have to look to the sky to see serious problems. Witness the homeless in our cities, our unemployed friends, the very expensive illness-care system, mean-spirited politicians, and the fluff that so often passes for news between mindless TV commercials.

If we can plan in nine years to hit a comet that isn't even there yet, why can't we bring our collective intelligence to bear on the very real problems facing us?

Our challenge for 1996 is to use the unique capacities of our brains, and of our hearts to solve the critical problems which face us. For a meaningful new year, let's work with others in our communities to create sustainable solutions. More about those in the coming weeks.

Happy New Year.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


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