Sunday, August 12, 2012

Awe, Wonder, and Curiosity

Mars Curiosity Rover (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

I watched NASA TV last Monday with countless others around the globe while mission staff breathlessly checked off the entry, descent, and landing sequence for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Curiosity. NASA assigned control of the remarkably precise plunge (dubbed “seven minutes of terror”) through the Martian atmosphere and landing within Gale Crater to MSL’s onboard computers. Due to the lengthy communication delay between Earth and Mars, no direct human control of the craft was possible. What I witnessed was a truly astonishing technological triumph. 

Curiosity’s spectacularly successful landing rekindled my childhood sense of awe and wonder about space exploration. NASA’s accomplishment stands as a testament to the power of human imagination, creativity, persistence, and will.

As a child of the space age, I grew up believing humankind’s potential was limitless. My faith in our ability to do wondrous things was richly rewarded when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in July of 1969. I recall my wide-eyed amazement as a true miracle of modern science unfolded before me in grainy black-and-white television images. The experience encouraged me to think big, look beyond the horizon, and ponder life’s greatest questions. 

Today, many criticize the use of limited public funds on programs that are literally out of this world. Regardless of the benefits to space science, how could policy-makers rationalize risking $2.5 billion to send a robot to a small, dusty, red planet 93 million miles away? Wouldn’t this money have been better spent solving problems here at home? This question is particularly resonant during this time of economic uncertainty. Why Mars when millions of our neighbors are in need of work, food, and housing? 

No amount of prosperity will entirely justify any expenditure on space exploration. There will always exist needs that trump others. Money isn’t the point. What is relevant is our innate desire to invest human energy and potential in the exploration of the unknown, in pursuits that enlist the power of our imaginations. 

Astrophysicist, Portland resident, and fellow blogger Ethan Siegel recently attempted to capture in words what may seem ineffable—a cogent rationale for space exploration:

“ Space is something that we are not only a part of, but that encompasses and affects all of us. Learning about the grandest scales of our live—about the things that are larger than us and will go on relatively unaffected by whatever we do—that has value! And it might not have a value that I can put a price tag on, but in terms of unifying everyone, from people in my city to people in a foreign country to people or intelligences on other planets or in other galaxies, space exploration is something that is the great equalizer. And the knowledge, beauty, and understanding that we get from it is something that one person, group, or nation doesn’t get to keep to itself; what we learn about the universe can be, should be, and if we do our jobs right, will be equally available to everyone, everywhere. This is where our entire world came from, and this is the abyss our entire world will eventually return to. And learning about that, exploring that, and gaining even a small understanding of that, has the ability to give us a perspective that we can never gain just by looking insularly around our little blue rock.”

This perspective is applicable to everything we as earthlings engage with. We cannot afford to maintain our anthropocentric worldview and hope to survive as a species. I’m enthusiastic about missions like the Mars Science Laboratory because they capture the attention and imagination of a wide audience, one primed for recalibration. 

Villa Rotunda by Palladio (photo by Philip Schafer via Wikipedia)

So what does my enthusiasm for the exploration of Mars have to do with architecture? A lot actually. 

Like space exploration, great architecture has the power to awaken our curiosity, point to the transcendent, and open our minds to worlds of possibility. As Ethan Siegel suggests with space exploration, great architecture speaks to things larger than we are. Like the universe itself, great architecture is beautiful and complex. It helps us understand who we are and where we come from. 

Great architecture is almost never the product of small-mindedness and expedience. It is only rarely the outcome of linear, reductive thinking. Great architecture demands an investment of both real and intellectual capital that may seem outsized compared to its immediate payback. Its true return may only be recognized many generations after its achievement. 

Great architecture is often the result of openness to the new and the unknown, as well as a childlike capacity to wonder. It presumes humility as an a priori condition to the experience of awe and wonder. Great architecture engages the curious mind and commands reflection. 

The capacity to wonder is critical to our advancement as a civilization. So too is curiosity because it is the fuel for creativity and inspiration. Without them, our world might not be filled with the innovations and conceptions that command our respect and reverence. 

I believe space scientists and talented architects have much in common. At their most sublime, their work inspires awe, wonder, and curiosity. Everyone is richer for their efforts. Curiosity’s creators dared to dream big. It would not surprise me at all to soon hear news from Mars that will more than repay their faith and investment in the intrepid rover. 

If architects are to remain relevant in the decades to come, they’ll need to likewise think big, look over the immediate horizon, and consider what it means fundamentally to dwell upon the earth. It will be their responsibility to wonder and explore, if not the larger universe, the smaller ones closer to home they can control. Like space scientists, they will need to enlist and exercise human curiosity for the sake of a future that can be better for theirs and future generations.


Specologist said...

Well said, Randy. Very well said.

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI said...

Thanks John!

Adam Klein said...

Very interesting blog. I enjoyed the way you transitioned from the Mars exploration into the bigger picture, especially in architecture. I think it's always important to keep exploring new ideas and places instead of staying in netural.

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Thanks and keep up the great writing!

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