“Please excuse me while I retrieve my wine glass from this table.”
I heard it in the midst of a fierce, internal struggle that required me to decide between three wildly different cheeses laid out in front of me. It was not until this moment that I finally realized the sort of company I was in yesterday evening. After all, where else in New York are there people who would be so eloquently courteous when separated from their drink by a 24-year old photographer? Yes, I was in the presence of brilliant minds.
In the background, a sci-fi string quartet played the rousing theme to Game of Thrones flawlessly. All around me, faces young and old were talking furiously and excitedly at one another. Each had come to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History for a different reason, but all would leave inspired and awed by what they saw. Personally, I had come because of a quote I’d read earlier that day:
“It’s time for an end to the self-obsession and pessimism about human nature that seems to pervade our inventions. There is not just something wrong, there’s something tediously solipsistic about a society whose main innovation has been the cataloging of itself in social media.”
This sobering observation, penned by Gawker’s founder Nick Denton, was one among several that led to the Gizmodo event last night, dubbed “First Comes The Dream.” It was the culmination of Denton’s desire to champion technology as a society and inspire the kinds of dreams that found us on the moon in 1969. And it completely changed my perception of our generation’s purpose with regard to technology and science.
Following the cocktail hour, we were ushered into the planetarium itself, where AMNH president Ellen Futter introduced the night’s special guests. Head of NASA Charles Bolden, Jr. spoke of New York’s important place in the space program, past and present, and recounted a visit to the Intrepid Air and Space Museum. And yes, New Yorkers, Charles finally validated Space Shuttle Enterprise’s permanent place in the city. So…everyone else, you can stop bringing that up. New York City Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Robert Steel reinforced New York City as a city of immigration, its welcoming arms replicated in the city’s incarnation as startup city that is welcome to companies of all sizes.
Next up was a bit of intergalactic travel. Just as we all realized that we had to be sitting in a planetarium for a reason, a mysterious voice began to echo through the chamber. It belonged to Carter Emmart, AMNH’s Director of Astrovisualization (a title any of us would do anything to have). He was eager to show us just how far we’ve come in the past few years and, hopefully, where we may be headed.
Emmart began by showing us satellite images of our country taken just yesterday – a testament to the precision that the museum prides itself on. Next, he steered us out of the atmosphere and into the realm of the international space station, bringing us up close and personal with a perfectly scaled 3D model of the thing. He brought us to the moon, showing us a level of detail that I never imagined we had. He took us through the Tatooine-like canyons of Mars, some as wide as the United States, and showed us a volcano so tall that it breached the atmosphere of the planet.
Over the next ten minutes or so, Emmart gradually took us beyond the solar system and into our galaxy. A moment later, we were well beyond that. As I stared at the tiny speck that was our galaxy, knowing that there were countless solar systems in it, only one of those our own, I got as close as I’ve ever gotten to beginning to understand the incredible vastness of the universe.
He of course wanted to take us further, but could not. “While the universe may be infinite, we are bounded by time,” he says. In that moment, things that once mattered seem to fall away. “Why are we not doing everything in our power to get ourselves to a place where we can explore all of this? Why am I not doing everything I can do?” It was a question I couldn’t keep off my mind.
Mind sufficiently blown, it was time to head downstairs to the Culver Hall of the Universe, where famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson himself was waiting for us. As with our previous treks around the museum, an open bar was once again waiting for us when we arrived. Whether this was made possible by science or magic I do not know. But no matter where you went, there was a bar. More museums should adopt this.
Culver Hall of the Universe, before the event
I cannot possibly do justice to the time Dr. Tyson spent addressing us [full video here]. He is as passionate about what he does as anyone you’ll ever meet. When asked how we knew he was supposed to dedicate his life to space, he answered, simply, “The universe chose me.” During his ‘interview,’ he talked of his childhood and the integral role the planetarium had on him growing up. He turned aside a question regarding examples of science fiction books or films that may have gotten him more interested in space. The universe as it is was more than enough, he said.
He laid out his ultimate dream for humanity… that the entire solar system might become our backyard someday. He went on, revealing that he wants nothing more than to go ice fishing on Europa (catching ‘Europeans’ of course). He talked of the climate in the 1960’s, the golden age of space exploration. It was not the people’s excitement about exploration that fueled the moon landing, he said. It was the moon landing that fueled the people’s excitement. And so it must be today. He lamented the public’s obsession with creatures like Snookie, though he doesn’t blame them. “Snookie wouldn’t be able to compete with a Mars landing,” he quipped. We just need to get there first.
The rest of the evening was spent in the Scales of the Universe, where Dr. Tyson happily addressed the questions and opinions of countless young people circled around him. Topics were as eclectic as the universe itself – everything from baseball and saliva to the Haitian earthquake and a cross section of Tyson’s most retweeted tweets. He even took the time to give me a bit of fashion advice, and for that I am grateful (I apparently do not have the biceps needed to not button the sleeves of my camp shirt at the elbow). I was most impressed by his patience, humility, and love of people. In fact, Dr. Tyson had to be pulled away from the group at the end of the night, as the event had gone an hour longer than it was supposed to. But not before giving sage advice to an intoxicated young woman engaging in a debate with him: “Can I give you some advice? Never give your academic pedigree.”(video to come)
The evening accomplished everything it wanted to. It was a night of inspiration – inspiration to learn more, to educate and excite the public, and to dream…and dream big. In the middle of one of the world’s great new tech hubs, surrounded by some of the greatest minds, we all came to realize how much we have yet to accomplish with the technology we’re using (and discovering) every day. This is not disconcerting or sobering, though. It is exciting to no end.
Want to do your part? You can start by touring the planetarium. As Tyson pointed out, it’s a living, organic being. As its scientists and researchers work to keep it on the frontier of human understanding, we have the chance to be there right next to them, learning what they’re learning. When we finally understand how important it is to dream, explore and discover as a global population, I’d be willing to bet we’ll be a lot closer to the world (or worlds) Tyson, Nick Denton and Charles Bolden envision.