Born Under the Second Law of ThermodynamicsPosted: August 26, 2012
Despite the fact that I grew up a few miles from NASA’s Space & Rocket Center in Alabama, I knew appallingly little about Neil Armstong before learning of his death yesterday afternoon, apart from what every grade school student hears. But even so, his death has weighed on me in a way other celebrity deaths have not.
I’ve since discovered that Armstrong was an incredibly smart, lucid, humble man, who — in addition to being the first person on the fucking moon — was a professor of astrophysics and just an exceedingly nice human being by all accounts. For starters, this was his self-description:
I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer—born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow. As an engineer, I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.
And this video (via Ryan Cooper) of him describing the terrain of the moon and how distances appeared distorted is absolutely surreal and delightful.
Apart from the sheer childhood fascination this stirs up, the other reason that this has affected me is that his death feels almost epochal.
First, the esteem that science enjoyed in the public imagination has been largely shattered, and it’s hard to think of scientists being as celebrated. As a lawyer who spent his entire childhood wanting to be a scientist, this is something that has gnawed at me a lot in different ways over the years. Decades of denialism and manufactured controversies over public education make me doubt that science will ever enjoy the kind of esteem again in my lifetime.
The moon-landing (and maybe this is the Space & Rocket Center talking through me) symbolizes something almost transcendent in the most literal sense of that word. This is one of those rare moments that our stupid primate species got its shit together long enough to actually ‘slip the surly bonds of Earth.’ It’s a kind of measurable proof that science is talking about a real place and that humanity, in its better moments, is capable of seeing itself and the world clearly (at least when its political motivations are properly aligned).
The second thing that’s changed is that it’s hard to imagine the American people or the US government prioritizing this kind of research investment again. Notwithstanding the fact that it was the Space Race against the USSR that justified it, going to the moon is something a President and large segments of the population actually thought was worth putting tax dollars into. It “captured the imagination.” Whereas now a lot Americans are unsure they want government much at all.
While helping with dinner today, I listened to a pretty moving episode of Radio Lab on “Space” that was just re-aired to commemorate Armstrong’s death. All the contemporary efforts to explore space they described involved either complex financial bets or ways to incentivize large venture capital-type private investments. The thought that the public might derive benefits from large investments in scientific endeavor is not even part of our national discussion any more. His death might not mark the end of an era. But there’s no question that his era is past.
Anyway, here’s a picture of the first dog in space, a Russian stray named Laika:
And I want to close with this incredible passage and quote from George Lazenby’s blog on what going to the moon can do to a person:
NASA needed astronauts to go plant a flag on the moon. For obvious reasons, the astronauts ended up being the most reliable type of man America makes: white, straight, full-starch protestant, center-right, and spawned by the union of science and the military. Every last one of them was the heart of the heart of the tv dinner demographic. But then they get shot into space, tossed from the gravity of this planet, across a quartermillion miles of nothing, to be snagged by the moon after three days. Eighteen guys did this and twelve descended further to find out that moon dust smells like gunsmoke. Every single one of them came back irrevocably changed. America had sent the squarest motherfuckers it could find to the moon and the moon sent back humans. Armstrong became a teacher, then a farmer. Alan Bean became a painter. Edgar Mitchell started believing in UFOs. And also managed to crystallize the experience of seeing your entire planet at once:
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.” (People: April 8th, 1974)