In time, they were proven wrong. The Earth was not flat. It was round, and, given the right equipment, one could circumnavigate it.
One could also begin to see that the Earth was not the center of the universe, around which everything spun. On the contrary, we were spinning around the sun.
The insight did not sit well with the Church, the leaders of which wanted people to believe we were at the center of everything. All knowledge of our planet’s spin was suppressed. For a while.
Over time, the truth prevailed. The Earth was found to be orbiting the sun and the universe proved to be vaster and more awesome than we ever imagined. Telescopes were assembled to observe the skies. Charts were created to make sense of them. Computers were constructed to analyze the data. Someone even had the crazy idea of building a ship and shooting it out into space. He wrote a science fiction book about it.
His name was Jules Verne, and the book was called From The Earth To The Moon (1865). It was an outrageous story that nevertheless caught the imagination of readers round the world.
One hundred years later, we shot our first ships into space. Some of them landed on the moon, while others orbited our planet. A few, like Voyager 1, were shot into deep space, carrying greetings to alien civilizations, while others still, like Curiosity Rover, landed on Mars.
The aim was to capture the world’s imagination by seizing the skies. So we did.
It was the beginning of a grand adventure. Such a move had not been made since life stepped out of the sea, onto land, becoming amphibian, then terrestrial.
Like our protozoan predecessors, our move was made to ensure our survival. Humanity had been caught in a vice of its own making for the past century, the future looking bleak. Rampant farming and industrialization were ravaging the planet. The World Wars were over but the Cold War was underway, pitting the world’s superpowers, the USA and the USSR, against each other, activating a nuclear arms race that threatened to eradicate life on Earth.
The West-East competition splintered into many antagonisms, one of which was the space race. The aim was to capture the world’s imagination by seizing the skies.
So we did. We ventured into space because we wanted to get there ahead of the enemy. Fear was our motive and guide. The Russians launched the first man in space, the Americans landed first on the moon, and all kinds of spaceships were shot into the heavens, marking the new frontier.
When the Cold War ended, the fear that drove humanity subsided, and so did the space program. Its funds were gradually diminished as our attention turned inward, backward, toward our immediate surroundings. We lost sight of the bigger picture.
Two authors have addressed the topic of the bigger picture in very different ways from each other. The renowned astronomer Carl Sagan wrote a book called Contact, in which he envisioned the world coming together after a message from space provides the blueprint for building an extraordinary Machine. In his story, Machinedo (The Way of the Machine) becomes the new creed by which the world lives, focusing all our efforts around the creation of something that may contain the secrets to something greater than us.
The book was made into a movie by Rob Zemeckis. Though it lacks the book’s depth, moving really fast through events and failing to deliver the full impact of the concept of Machinedo (the original plot actually spans years, during which the globe changes attitude, embracing the new realities), it’s an enjoyable film.
J.R.R. Tolkien took a different, more indirect approach to addressing discovery and the bigger picture. In his 1937 book The Hobbit, he traces out Middle Earth, a world that is changed by an unexpected journey in search of a stolen treasure. The venture into the unknown kick starts movements that stir the world, forcing everyone out of a stalemate and into action. Great battles ensue, both personal, with one’s demons, and global, between rival factions and competing civilizations, in the course of which the world is transformed.
The Hobbit was made into a movie series in 2012. Its original story was modified to make it more cinema friendly, complemented with back stories from The Silmarillion, a related Tolkien book, putting the adventure in perspective.
In The Lord Of The Rings (book –1954-1955), sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien takes things a step further. He traces out a world coming together under the shadow of a dark power that threatens to take over the world. Stirred by its evil waves, the creatures of Middle Earth abandon their routines and rush to meet the enemy. They venture into the unknown, exceeding all expectations, testing themselves in ways never before imagined.
[WARNING! CONTAINS SPOILERS!]
Many die. Others are injured. The way ahead is agonizing.
It is the price to pay to ensure the survival of their world.
The irony is that their world does not survive. Middle Earth does not fall prey to the dark force, but its inhabitants’ efforts to stop it, and their willingness to venture into the unknown, affects them in such a way that when the fight is over, they are changed forever. The world is no longer the same. It may not be dark and evil, but it is not stale and old either. It has been refreshed.
In Real Terms
Although inspiring, Sagan’s Contact vision on how we move forward is utopian. People do not come together on the global scale unless they are forced to do so by an extraneous factor that threatens to upend them, like Tolkien brilliantly illustrated. Fear seems to be the only means to grand ends. That and our boundless creativity.
Like the creatures in Tolkien’s books, we have been stirred into action by fear. We have seen what we can do when mobilized and inspired.
We have also been moved by our ability to create wonders, like Sagan outlined, albeit in retrospect. When looking back, it is evident that our collaboration has resulted in miracles over the ages, both on Earth and beyond. Our ability to create and innovate empowers us long after the fear that stirred us into action has been left behind.
Fact is, our world is no longer flat and limited. It has been expanded by those who dared defy our limitations. New worlds have been discovered. Dare we turn our heads away now, pretending they are no longer there, as if we never saw them? Wouldn’t that be an awful waste of knowledge? Would we not fare better if we decided to make the best of the resources given to us?