LASMAN: Next year in space

Beartrap

This Friday, the world’s Jews begin Passover, the perennially relevant celebration of exodus from Egyptian bondage. Every year provides an array of potential connections, and this season of protests and immolations seems particularly rife with resonance. But rather than addressing these divisive concerns, I’m interested in the exodus itself — the search for promised land. From the narrative of a people risen up from slavery to the symbolic egg and herbs on the Seder plate to the eternal hope invoked in “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” — “Next year in Jerusalem” — the holiday uses millennia-old rituals to inspire an ardent dedication to future arrival in a different place.

Desires to attain a different world have fueled faiths and fantasies, metaphysical exploration and scientific quests. They have sent monks to hermetic cells and oceanographers to abyssal trenches. They account for the imperial scramble to the North and South Poles and the Space Race, both of which achieved far more symbolic importance than practical benefits.

Most recently, last week witnessed the results of a groundbreaking astronomical survey. An international team of astronomers working at an observatory in Chile announced that the number of super-Earths — planets one to 10 times the size of our own — in our galaxy is much higher than previously expected.

Surveying 102 red dwarf stars, the researchers concluded that about 40 percent of these stars have roughly Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zone, that elusive sliver of space in which liquid water might exist on the surface. With about 160 billion red dwarves in our galaxy, the scientists’ results suggest that we are one of billions of planets that fall into this admittedly nonrigorous but still significant category. Around 100 of these super-Earths orbit less than 30 light-years away from us.

Never mind that the furthest-traveled man-made object in the universe, the Voyager 1 probe, won’t be crossing that distance for another 420,000 years — twice as long as the entire existence of the humanity thus far. And some scientists continue to invoke everything from evolutionary biology to the presence of Jupiter as proof of our planet’s uniqueness. But I wonder instead about the relationship between the search for new worlds and our convoluted relationship to our own. The desire for terra incognita has always indicated deep dissatisfaction with terra cognita and the proposal that the solution lies in moving on rather than improving our lot.

That is why so much longing for the future manifests as a longing for no future, for the promise of end times that nearly every culture and religion, from Vikings to Mormons, has envisioned. As Roland Emmerich and New Age conspiracy theorists will tell you, our current year has long been a favorite countdown target. The arcane Mayan calendar provides the excuse; grim litanies of disaster, disease, climate change and war provide the justification.

Despite compelling evidence that humans are more able and willing to coexist peacefully than ever before in our history, we have an almost stunning apathy about the future. The word “sustainability” has been bandied about our public discourse for three decades, but at nearly every level, from the political to the economic to the environmental, our culture has come to reject long-term vision for immediate gain. We are increasingly commitment-shy, whether because we hold out hope or because we fear the vagaries of what is to come. This schizophrenic relationship to the future is nothing new. But erring so definitively toward a collective blindness to consequences is an unprecedented — and terrifying — solution.

So on this year’s Passover, I plan to remind myself of an alternative approach: striving forward while reconciling myself to the imperfection of exile. In our lifetimes, it is unlikely that the world will either end or be superseded by an attractive extraterrestrial planet. We would do well to work with what we have.

Sam Lasman is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at samuel.lasman@yale.edu.

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