“Science fiction makes me want to vomit,” my mother once said to me. I completely understood what she meant. Don’t get me wrong, the genre is one of my favorites. But for someone prone to motion sickness, a consummate landlubber—someone who loves the dirt, green, growing things, the sunlight, walking barefoot, the scent of water—the idea of hurtling through space in a small metal coffin (ahem, shuttle) would be pure torture. Yet, despite knowing full well that I never want to be an astronaut or a pilot in real-life, I enjoy science fiction stories with great enthusiasm.
The futuristic scenarios are so intriguing, they are either presented as dystopias or reveal themselves to be. Human frailty and emotion eluding the cleverest strategists, the tiniest cracks suddenly appearing in the sleekest modern forms—questioning, censoring, sometimes even destroying that alluring technological advancement in all its glory. Some may call me a “nerd” or an “escapist”, but my feet are firmly anchored to the ground. I may be a dreamer, a star gazer, but I still wake up to the harsh light of day. I still get lost in the minutiae of daily life and social politics, tedious problems we can never ever seem to escape, no matter how hard we try—not even in any good fantasy story we can conjure. Perhaps science is the one crucial step that could bridge those intriguing, paradoxical gaps between the real and the fictional. Though wisdom and ethics have continually proven that they are just as important in stabilizing that bridge for crossing.
I have found an exciting new pleasure in reading the science news, especially when it concerns exploring outer space or other planets. The articles themselves provide ample information and interesting new theories, but what really fascinates me are the comments sections. I always read the article and quickly scroll down to read all the comments. I admit there are some stupid and crazy threads, even by any standard of magical thinking, but what I often find can be as satisfying as coins on a sidewalk. Whenever I feel depressed, numb, or powerless to deal with current events in the news, or the eternally unfair outcomes of unjust and bloody histories, I just read the comments sections of science articles about exploring outer space or other planets. Whenever people begin to think about these particular subjects, they almost always take on a very different perspective than they do in daily life: they take the long-view.
Just the idea of leaving Earth challenges us in so many fundamental ways. It forces us to take a step back from ourselves as individuals—to take a step back from everything—to observe humanity as a whole, and try to foresee where we could be headed. We begin to ask ourselves how we could develop the capability to leave our world behind. If we could ever improve our technologies or knowledge, if we could ever solve global problems, heal old wounds, replace obsolete or ineffective systems, challenge entrenched world orders—if we could ever become better, if we could ever rise to meet the demands of leaving our planet, the demands of leaving everything we know, of leaving home as we know it. We take the long-view of time—not just in hundreds of years, but in thousands, in millions—of light years and millennia. We wonder if we could ever outgrow the conditions of a world that made us—so fundamental, so necessary, so nurturing—now restricting and stifling in the face of our ever-growing ambitions.
We wonder if aliens exist. And if we were to meet them, would they kill us or subjugate us? As we have done, so cruelly and consistently with each other, those we deem inferior. We desperately look for exceptions to the rules. We look for new ways to understand and rewrite the rules. No man-made wall has ever proven so impenetrable, so completely and perfectly impenetrable as unsurmountable distance. Nothing has proven our absolute ineptitude quite like the unconquerable vastness of time and space.
Perhaps it seems quite cold and harsh that I would enjoy such musings. But I take great pleasure in imagining the most arrogant, most self-righteous a**holes being humbled and confounded by the immensity of space. Like death, it is a truly leveling concept. When I look up at the stars it is like a wave that runs through me, reverberating along my spine and fingertips. It is the smallest sense of what I don’t know, of what we don’t know, and it is vast. As vast as space itself.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker
Photographs are of the greenhouses at Berlin Botanical Garden, a recent visit there inspired this post.