To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
Welcome to my home on the World Wide Web.
What is the meaning of life? Many writers have considered this question over the years. Deep thinkers from Socrates to Sartre have pondered it. Definitive answers have proved elusive, perhaps because the general tendency is to seek a prescription: some detailed yet all-encompassing plan. But I have an answer, and in a minute, I'll give it to you.
Roger Zelazny, late writer of science fiction and fantasy, had one of his characters in Jack of Shadows declare that the gift Prometheus stole from the gods and gave to man was not fire, but consciousness. In other words, what distinguishes us as individuals and as a species is not the specific methods we have developed to master the natural world, but the ability to develop such methods. In still other words, intelligence, imagination, insight: faculties which permit us to envision, engage and summon the future. Developed to their fullest, these faculties incorporate a measure of uncertainty. They shun the hubris of prescribing the One Best Way, instead proposing merely something which feels like it might work. The test of these proposals, of course, is in carrying them out. Failure is no cause for despair; it merely requires another, better proposal.
Another late writer, the scientist Carl Sagan, perhaps put it best and most succinctly. "We", he said, "are a way for the Cosmos to know itself." Implicit in these words is a ceaseless progression of discoveries: life — with the usual measure of trial and error — steadily expanding its knowledge and capabilities.
So here's my answer: The meaning of life is expansion. I don't mean unbridled physical growth, as in the Biblical injunction to "Go forth and multiply, and subdue the earth"1. This Earth our home is not something to be subdued — a fact we're finally learning just as we are, in fact, subduing it. Rather, I refer to the growth of knowledge, the expansion of capabilities. Intellectual achievement is (probably) the only inherently limitless form of progress.
Yet we are based in the physical world, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. So my metaphor for this limitless expansion is the limitless vistas of the sky. It is doubly apt because, while its untrammeled expanse conveys a wonderful feeling of freedom, we now understand that it is a veil behind which lies a realm of essentially infinite possibilities: The planets, moons and wide open spaces of our own star system, and the numberless star systems and galaxies beyond.
By naming this page as I have, I hope to convey the triune aspects of that sky metaphor: the magnificent sweep of the horizon seen from a high place; the abundant possibilities waiting for us in the immensely wider spaces just above that azure veil; and the truly infinite promise of the intellect.
What specific ways are there to open the sky? They are a myriad. Books are a superb and time-honored way. There's fiction, which inspires by presenting desirable goals. Many outstanding scientists and engineers have been led to their careers by reading science fiction.2 And there's non-fiction 3, which gives us the means to reach those goals.
Philosophy and religion are other ways. So is art, in all its forms. These things are vital parts of civilization. But the heart of art is largely personal and individual, and the same is true of the other two. So I won't have much to say, here, about these ways of opening the sky. But technology is more standardized; that is, it generally operates in the same way for any individual. I assert that technology is an important — and often under-appreciated — way of opening the sky for all of us at once. I'll have a lot to say about that in these pages.
Transportation is an important area of technology. I doubt anyone would minimize its importance, which extends from the very personal (remember your first car?) to the political and technical complexities of "mass transit". There's a great deal worth saying about all forms of transportation, from skateboards and rollerblades through steamships, railroad trains and airliners. But my interest centers on emerging forms, especially spacecraft, and I'll focus on those here.
Medical technology and personal computers are also important sky-openers. Longer, healthier lives obviously expand our possibilities in many ways. Having a capable personal computer at your beck and call gives you better organization of personal records, more creativity in publication, and new options for communication. (It even lets you crunch numbers better.) And of course energy production is important, since energy drives everything.
I must not omit education. It is of course the primary way of opening the sky, for all of us. Or at least it should be. The question of why American primary schools don't do a better job of imparting to all their students the set of basic skills those students need if they are to perform well in later life has been hotly debated for decades, if not centuries. I'll be throwing in some data, some observations by others, and probably a rant or two of my own, on this vital topic.
Those who throw up obstacles to progress deserve some attention as well. But not derision, even though they often employ it themselves. I divide such obstacles into two classes: pseudoscience and reactionism. I define pseudoscience as publications or pronouncements having the outward forms of science without its essence, and I'll expand on that elsewhere in these pages. Reactionism is any unwarranted objection to progress. I object to such objections. However, since I know that reactionism is often motivated by fear, I try to avoid condemning the reactionaries. What I hope to do here is provide some arguments to use in opening such closed minds.
I recognize that others will have differing views on what constitutes unwarranted objection to progress, and I expect to spark some debates about this. So how do I define unwarranted? Stick around and see.
I'll present some history, some current developments, and some projections of where I think our quest will take us. Join with me here in exploring some of the ways we have found, and are finding, to open the sky.
1 The actual quote, from the King James Bible (Genesis 1:28) is: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
2 It's high time I acknowledged the SF story that inspired me to name these pages. It's by the late Theodore Sturgeon, and its title is It Opens the Sky. On 18 July, 2012, I discovered a novel by Robert Silverberg which is titled To Open the Sky. I read it in the Greg Press edition, with an Introduction by Russell Letson. It concerns the Brotherhood of the Immanent Radiance, aka the Vorster Cult. Vorsters follow a scientific religion: along with the ritual trappings, they have a research center at Santa Fe, New Mexico (where else?) where they seek the goals of immortality and interstellar travel. The main character, Reynolds Kirby... Well, I'd best not rehash the plot here.
3 I find it odd that factual books are classified as "non-fiction". Would you call truthful statements "non-lies"? In court, would you "promise to tell the non-lies, the whole non-lies, and nothing but the non-lies?" I understand the historical reasons why books are classified in this way; but I still find it odd.