Apr 26, 2019
Here’s a response I never hear when I ask my guests what on earth is going on: We’re exploring the stars! We are uncovering the mysteries of the universe! We’re mapping out the next thousand years for humanity!
I realized this in my conversation with Bob McDonald, a beloved science journalist and communicator whose eyes light up when he talks about science and discovery. Bob has been igniting minds with the awesome power of science for decades, and many Canadians know him from occasional appearances on The National and as the host of the weekly CBC science show, Quirks & Quarks.
In person, Bob is wide-eyed, gregarious and obviously curious, but he’s also down-to-earth and friendly. Science didn’t come to Bob on a silver spoon – he devoured knowledge because he wanted to, and he did so at a time of breathtaking scientific development in the 1960s. When John F. Kennedy declared America’s mission to land a man on the moon before the decade was out (and before the Soviets), it actually happened.
Today, these sorts of grand political gestures have become commonplace while success is elusive. Think of the endless war on drugs, the battle to cure cancer, the dream of ending homelessness. Our public discourse is loaded with hyperbole that can never be matched by the results, which renders the grand posturing more and more incredulous. And that’s not to the say the results are, in and of themselves, disappointing. Steven Pinker has tried to show (in books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature) that human progress continues to take us upward. Crime, war and disease are all in decline, while overall material quality of life rises inexorably (even if unequally).
But you wouldn’t know it by speaking to people or reading the news. Our species is in trouble, we think. Our civilization is not sustainable, and it will collapse just like every other empire in history. The coming catastrophe of climate change, regardless of the relentless campaigns of denial, has seeped into the very bones of our public discourse. When you ask, what on earth is going on, what do you think of? I bet that even if it’s not crime or disorder or nuclear weapons or environmental degradation, it’s still anxious.
In our conversation, Bob says, “Here we are in the best of times, and all we want to talk about is the worst of times.” He went on to speak of thousand-year plans, of doing for transportation or energy what we did with the transmission of recorded sound. You can’t help but be uplifted when you sit across from Bob, the consummate kindler of curious minds. You can't help but feel that we could tap into outrageous human potential if we simply answered that ongoing question, what on earth is going on, with a little more excitement and verve and a vision of something bigger than ourselves. Not to dismiss our challenges, but to overwhelm them with positivity and ingenuity and selflessness – maybe even a shared mission to go back to the stars.
See you next week.