When I was growing up in ‘60’s Midwest America, my two siblings and I had butts in seats whenever the innovative new TV show, “Star Trek”, came on. We didn’t see it as hokey, as some scoffers did at the time, we were intrigued. People were in outer space, learning new stuff! And they were really good at what they did. They admired each other, supported each other, knew the rules of Star Fleet so everything kept humming along smoothly. And there were Asians, Blacks and Vulcans, all respected for their traditions and where they came from, and….well to say it was mind bending is an understatement. We loved it.
Maybe, I remember thinking, there’s a chance for humans after all. This space age seems like a future worth paying attention to. (In my short life, a President had been assassinated, then his brother, and soon Dr. Martin Luther King would join them. These events and others kept me up at night, worrying about my country and planet.)
I became interested in other science fiction, and began to see a pattern. The more people explored and took risks, the more they innovated, and the more they innovated, the more cogent their understanding of life and its possibilities. Their critical thinking, the ability to prove or disprove something based on facts, was always in play.
When my kids were little, I decided to form a Young Astronauts chapter at their elementary school, the idea of which was supported by NASA. I got some of my materials from NASA, but by that time I had also joined the Planetary Society, and a lot of information also came from them. I went around to first through third grade classrooms and recruited any kids who were interested. The only requirement: be there an hour before school one day a week.
Children in this age range are pretty adorable. Some of them were under the impression that we were actually going into outer space! And they were good with it! Imagination at that age knows no bounds.
So we got to work.
We studied the fairly new Voyager images of the planets and some of their moons, we formed teams and drew straws for who would be leaders, architects, life scientists, engineers, medical officers, and built our own space stations on the moon (a slab of Styrofoam), we tried to figure out what gravity was, we studied the Big Bang theory….children have no idea these concepts are too advanced for them. I saw many faraway looks in my little classes, and felt that was a sure sign they were hooked on science. One day, coming home on a bus from a field trip, someone called out, “Ms. Foard, look….there’s VENUS!!!” and we all crowded to that side of the bus to gaze at the bright light on the horizon. At least two of my students later went on to aerospace careers.
The other thing I’ve noticed about science fiction, is that a lot of it actually becomes part of our lives. The communicators that Star Trek’s crew used (cell phones), the tri-corders used for medical analysis (MRIs), tablet computers, etc. Human teleportation and warp drive are still not feasible, but the point is, could they be? And when human beings ask those kinds of questions, they take a giant step forward in understanding our place here on Earth.
Those kinds of questions are what stimulates our creativity and drives us forward, the “what if” questions that give our brains something to chew on.
These questions tend to be bred out of us by the time we reach puberty. Depending on who was in charge of our education and child raising, we might have developed an absolute aversion to creating anything. How many of us create art after elementary school? We were probably given some kind of sign that somehow, this was not something we were cut out to do or that we were downright bad at it! I went into music because I knew I was good at it. But that’s not a reason to commit your life to something.
A reason to commit your life to something is synonymous with having a reason to get up in the morning, in other words, a passion. And there are plenty of examples out there of people who chased that something and eventually…..genius erupted.
Or not. It’s a risk.
I’ve come to believe that nothing is worth doing in this one life we have if it doesn’t inspire passion, curiosity, joy, and a commitment to going forward and discovering stuff.
I mentioned the Planetary Society earlier. My husband and I have gone to their annual shindig, off and on, over the past thirty years. You can rub shoulders with astronauts, NASA officials, engineers, space doctors (yes, there is such a thing), teams of young people from all over the world who design space colonies and stations, astronomers, etc. The feeling is always upbeat, hopeful, professional and innovative.
Neither of us have any overlap into these fields, but we go to be inspired and to spend four days learning and considering the possibilities. We come away refreshed, with a new outlook for the future. Anyone can attend this conference (if you join the Planetary Society, simple and inexpensive, with the added plus that you get their publication, Ad Astra). It opens up new pathways in our brains, and as artists, we sorely need to keep those ideas flowing.
Find something that does that for you. Break the chains of everyday routine and learn something you never knew. Keep growing and expanding and, as always, creating. It’s why we’re here.
Ask some questions, and go play.