King of the Universe

This is a piece I wrote for The Times Science Blog back in March 2010. The Times no longer allow free access to their website so I’m reproducing it here:

I want to be an astronaut. And now that we have a UK Space Agency, I might get to be one: I’m a teacher AND I’m from an ethnic minority community, which should mean that I’m way ahead of most people when the Minister for Outer Space draws up a shortlist for the first crew sent into space by UKSA (doesn’t quite have the same ring as NASA, does it?)

The closest I’ve come to being an astronaut so far is to shake the hand of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the Moon. I have no doubt that Neil has no recollection of this momentous event in my life — I was one dozens of people with whom he shook hands after a recent event at the Royal Society where five astronauts enthralled a small audience with recollections of their adventures in space. Amongst other delights, we heard the Apollo 13 story from Jim Lovell himself, and Eugene Cernan’s description of being the last man to have stood on the Moon.

I was only at this event because I was a teacher, only allowed to go because I was accompanying five of my students to the talk. So you see, being a teacher does have its perks.

The astronauts were inspiring — truly heroic men who have accomplished great things. All of them were clearly smart and capable men. They could do science, maths, play (American) football and fix a broken spaceship. The kind of guys you’d want on your side in a fight or if you were stuck on a desert island. My students were awestruck by them. After the talk, one of my students said to me “Sir, your generation’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it?”.

Perhaps he had a point — sure, my generation has invented the iPod and facebook, but Armstrong’s generation dared to climb into tin cans strapped to explosives and fly into the unknown. Awesome.

Another student was left concerned by the talk: “Sir, I sometimes worry what would happen to the world if all the old people died at once. Who’d be left to do these amazing things? None of the people I know are as smart as those guys”. This was from one of my smartest students; I question whether an equally able student from a private school would have asked such a question, but that’s another discussion.

I was glad the talk had inspired my students. But I have a bone to pick with the astronauts. It’s a problem with a lot of astronomers and people who talk to the public about space: their constant use of the term “insignificant” to describe the Earth and us humans. I am not insignificant. When you tell me that you can stand on the moon and see the Earth as a “pale blue dot” which you can blot out with your thumb, that does not make me think the Earth is insignificant. When you tell me that there are more stars in our galaxy than there are grains of sand on every beach in the world, that does not make me feel insignificant.

My dictionary defines “insignificant” as “not worthy of notice”. Anyone who uses the word “insignificant” to describe The Earth or humans does not understand the meaning of the word. Because, as far as I can tell we are the most significant thing in this corner of the Universe. If you were an alien and you were to stand on the Moon and look around you, surely it is the little pale blue dot that would be most worthy of notice?

Surely it would be the only body in the galaxy where protons, neutrons and electrons have come together to make objects which think, love, write blog posts, that would be the most significant finding? All the other objects in the galaxy are pretty much the same aren’t they? Sure, there are different types of star but compared to just one human being, stars are boring, uncomplicated things. If you were an alien standing on our moon, you would think it is the stars that are insignificant, not us. So Lord Mandelson, my beloved Minister for Outer Space, send me to the moon and I promise I will not come back to Earth and talk to people about the insignificance of us or our planet. Send me to the moon and I’ll stand atop it and shout “I’m the King of the Universe”.

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