The Hope for Brave New Worlds

The discovery of new worlds, and the potential for further exploration of that final frontier, space, makes us think of our own limitations as well as our potential for trying to understand, and the impossibility of having or knowing it all when we want to.
10/19/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

We dream of other worlds while we forget about this one.

I was thinking about this on seeing the exciting news about the discovery of an Earth-sized planet circling our nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

Thanks to ever-advancing techniques in detecting gravitational wobbles as a planet circles its star, scientists are finding more and more planets outside our solar system. This is the first in our galactic neighborhood. Alpha Centauri is "only" 4.4 light years away (and it's a binary star system, meaning there are two stars circling each other, with a third lurking in the relative vicinity).

A few hundred planets have been discovered over the last decade or so, and it's increasingly likely that some time soon a planet will be found that resembles Earth in being perhaps habitable.

New discoveries such as this and, in fact, most astronomical discoveries, are at once thrilling and humbling. Thrilling because they show how much we can still learn about our universe, and humbling because they also show how much we still don't know.

But at the same time, as scientists come upon rocky planets (rather than the gas giants that have been relatively easier to find), we think about colonizing as well as discovery. We think about escape. We think about change. We think about starting anew. We think in terms of leaving Earth rather than making do where we are. We think in terms of discard rather than preservation.

The indomitable and pioneering human spirit is also short-sighted and forgetful.

Presidential elections turn on the notion of change -- yet few realize that change doesn't happen overnight. Still, impatient voters think they can find jobs, houses and cheap gas by throwing out one politician for another. And doing the same thing a few years later. It's the same in business: Publicly-held companies are beholden to quarterly reports rather than long-term profits. It's important to show short-term gains.

We're accustomed to expecting things quickly, from overnight television ratings, to first-weekend box office success or failure, to instant bestsellers to sudden celebrity. We find a new planet and think of it as a potential new home -- until a new one comes along.

Yet in reality, things turn more slowly. But for many, even a generation is too long. Still, generational change is a powerful thing, and happens despite our current short-attention-span mindset. Sure we live in an age of Twitter feeds and instant "analysis" (which is actually snap judgment), but we humans, despite our wish to be on top of everything at every single moment, move inexorably and, often without our knowing it, together from generation to generation.

In our new book, Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future, my co-author Roy H. Williams and I outline how profound social change occurs every 40 years or so, swinging back and forth from an individualistic "me" cycle, such as what we had in the 1960s and 1970s, to a more civic-minded "we" cycle, such as that of the World War II generation. And ours, right now is a "civic" or "we" cycle. We believe it began in 2003 and, despite the egomaniacal blathering of a presidential year, we tend to think in terms of the common good, rather than individual heroics. We want transparency rather than obfuscation (think of all those fact-checkers monitoring the presidential debates).

And yet, despite that, many people want something to happen overnight, as if anything other than a natural disaster can make that happen. The thing is, social change occurs in ways we don't notice until much later (in our research for Pendulum we examined 3,000 years of political, cultural, literary and sociological events). We might think in terms of immediate reaction and gratification, but history, society and yes, change, occurs at a pace that we cannot control.

In any event, the discovery of new worlds, and the potential for further exploration of that final frontier, space, makes us think of our own limitations as well as our potential for trying to understand, and the impossibility of having or knowing it all when we want to. If we were to launch a probe to look for other planets in a nearby star system, it would take hundreds of years for that probe to reach its destination, and any information sent back would take a few years to reach us, even at the speed of light.

So what does that say about our wish to run away from where we are, what we've done and begin anew on another planet? It's not remotely possible, even if in our science-fiction dreams we could transport ourselves there and start exploiting some strange new world.

Scientists give us hope that we can change, that we can progress. This is great, and we should strive to better ourselves. But we should look for change not to the stars, but to ourselves, and certainly not to Twitter feeds, television commentators or, at the very least, politicians.