Should I stay or should I go?

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I knew it was a movie that I wanted to see. It was a simple trailer in terms of special effects and action, but it spoke deeply and directly to the audience. When the first trailer came out, there was very little information on the plot, but I knew it had to do with space travel, and took place in a bleak future. I was especially struck with the line “The world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.” This line cemented my desire to watch the film – I was excited to see a science fiction film rooted in science fact, and I was also worried that this movie would give off the wrong impression of what engineers do to the public.

I won’t give away the plot of Interstellar for those who have not yet seen it (and if you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to go). I just want to talk about my thoughts on the themes presented in the movie, mainly space exploration and engineering and science.

I’ve talked about my changing views on space exploration in earlier posts, but it’s a subject of particular interest for me, and is brought up often in my field of interests, so I thought I’d talk about again. I haven’t read anything that Christopher Nolan has said regarding his film, but from what I gather, Interstellar was made in an effort to show the significance of a space exploration program (Interstellar also seems to be an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey). My opinion of space exploration has changed over the course of a few years, as evidenced from my After Earth blog post and then my post on Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield. I used to think that space exploration was admirable, but also misguided and an incorrect application of humanity’s innate desire for exploration. Now, I think quite differently, and I think Interstellar is a good platform to explain why.

An obvious question, which is brought up within the film, is “Why should we spend so much money on space exploration and searching for something that may not exist when we have so many problems here on Earth that we know exist?” It’s a completely valid question, and one which probably drove the eventual decommissioning of NASA’s manned space flight program. This conflict is also what makes many environmentalists opponents of the space exploration program as many see it as a waste of valuable resources that could be used to solve problems here on Earth, rather than to look for another planet that humanity can consume and degrade beyond recovery. So it may be strange that I, as an environmental engineer, support space exploration.

As always, I should say that being an environmental engineer does not necessarily make me an environmentalists (a common misconception which I make every attempt to clear up). While environmental engineers are heavily invested in the well-being of the environment, I would not say that all environmental engineers are environmentalists (my thoughts on environmentalism, here). Environmental engineers work on all things related to the environment – both the built and natural environment. There are environmental engineers that work with NASA to design efficient water-recycling systems, or to grow plants in zero gravity – these people literally engineer the environment of astronauts. Nevertheless, I do care about the well-being of this planet, and I am not advocating a lifestyle of slash-and-burn for humanity, where we use up the resources on one planet and move on to another.

Space exploration is costly, yes, and it may seem like we are spending a lot of money on uncertainties. But space exploration is as much an exploration of the self as it is about an exploration of the universe. We are looking not only for planets that host life (and to answer the question, “Are we alone?”) but we are looking for answers – “How did this universe come to be?” “How did we come to be?” We are looking for scientific explanations for our own existence. Space exploration is one of the most concrete ways of satisfying the existential crises that everyone has. It may not answer “why am I here?” but it strives to answer “how am I here?” and to an extent, the pursuit of that knowledge answers the first question. Would the money spent on space exploration be better used for research here on earth, such as the development of more resilient crops, as seen in Interstellar? Possibly, but I don’t see it as a binary relationship. Why can’t we have both? Countries spend far more money on other sectors (the military being a main one), wouldn’t that money be better used towards scientific research? Some may disagree, and some may also point out that the only reason the space exploration program started was because of political instability between the United States and the Soviet Union. I can also point out that the only things that are pursued in this world are thing that turn a profit – the private industry is going into space travel and asteroid mining not necessarily for the scientific gain, but also the monetary gain. But in the case of government-funded space exploration – spending money does not necessarily mean a return on profit. It’s the same with government-funded research of any kind – agriculture, energy, etc. – the role of government is not to make profit-driven investments. Its very nature is to make investments in technologies and research that do not yet seem profitable and worthy of private investment and turn them into profitable investment for the private industry.  At least, that’s how I see it.

I don’t see space exploration as just a scientific gain, I also see it as a social benefit to humanity. Space has always fascinated us, we’ve always wanted to know what’s beyond the stars. Yes, we have the desire to know more about our own planet, our forests, our oceans, the core, but everyone has a desire to know what’s beyond the sky above (at least, that’s what I think, I’m sure some will disagree). Space is the ultimate equalizer, it surround us all, and in a way, it is both humbling and terrifying. The desire to know more about what “out there” can be a unifying force, and the desire for exploration is, as Interstellar brings up, an inherent quality of humanity. We are explorers, we are pioneers – but that does not mean we are allowed to be explorers with no sense of consequence or responsibility. Space exploration is a pure expression of humanity, it is a unifying force. Of course, humanity also carries other motives (as Interstellar brings up), such as survival or greed, and these are just as powerful forces, if not more powerful, and undoubtedly cloud our desire for exploration. Space exploration forces us to confront the existential questions, “What is the purpose of humanity?” If we think on a grand scale, beyond our own selves and think of future generations, we arrive at such values such as “sustainability,” a value that many environmentalists hold dear. But what is the goal of “sustainability,” is it to simply survive? Interstellar brings up the possibility that our goal isn’t to just survive, but it is to explore, to see this expanse around us. Unfortunately, the film takes a defeatist point of view of the earth. It seems like there is nothing humanity can do to restore the earth, and that the only answer is to get off a dying planet before we ourselves die on it. Ultimately, when our sun does eventually go supernova and consume our solar system, I’d say that be a good time to get off this planet. But the question that Interstellar failed to explore is, when do we know it’s time to leave our planet for good? When do we stay and try to fight, and when do we decide it’s time to go?

Am I saying that my field is of lesser ethical/moral worth than that of space exploration? For me, I will try to make sure that our life here lasts as long as it possibly can before the question of “should we leave” is brought up. It may seem like a cop-out, but I’m fairly certain that the question of moving to another planet will not be brought up in my lifetime, so my desire is to make sure that life here on Earth is still possible. And I would go even farther and say that if presented the choice to leave Earth, I would hesitate before making my decision. It may seem hypocritical of me, but there are very present problems on Earth that need to be solved (if they ever will is another question). Just as space exploration helped bring technologies such as the MRI machine to the public, so too can research in other fields help expand our technologies for space exploration. The two aren’t necessarily at odds with each other, I think they are both necessary for not just the survival of humanity, but also the exploration of humanity.

For the most part, I am quite happy with the way Interstellar portrayed the engineering profession. The main character is a rocket scientist, and almost all of the characters in the story have professions related to engineering and science. In some ways though, it appears that the film takes an almost elitist perspective on engineering and science, claiming it is the ultimate expression of humanity (which is an argument that the fields in the arts make). I’m a huge advocate for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), but I also see the value in the arts. The problem in Interstellar’s world wasn’t that humans no longer prioritized science or engineering, it’s that they only prioritized survival which ironically, inhibited their ability to not only survive, but to live. Often the things that speak most to our humanity is a combination of both science and arts.

What bothers me is that the engineering profession is still not accurately explained in the movie, and in fact is probably further obscured. The above quote seems to imply that engineers only work on electronics (and only consumer electronics), which is just plain wrong. Engineers are a varied bunch – some of the first engineers were Agricultural Engineers. Engineering is a broad term, and in essence it means someone who is a problem solver. Perhaps Nolan intentionally meant to make the comment about the “world not needing engineers” as a commentary on how the public has no idea what engineers do, but not much was done to show how varied the engineering profession is. Engineering is not only dealing with electronics, or rockets and space exploration, it’s extremely invested in the well-being of society. I’m not saying that engineering is “better” than other professions, I’m just saying it’s a very misunderstood and underestimated profession. While yes, it can be implied that some of the characters were also other types of engineers – Anne Hathaway’s character could be assumed to be some type of biological engineer – but honestly, the term engineer is used so often, you could tack on the term “engineer” to the end of any science based field and people couldn’t care less. But the only times the word engineer is used in Interstellar is with electronics and rockets, which is a pretty limited view of the field. To me, an engineer is someone who uses fundamental science principles to solve problems relevant to society’s needs – which admittedly, is a broad and vague definition.

Additionally, I appreciate the way the film brings in concepts not often related to science, and poses scientific explanations. Interstellar does a fairly good job of bringing in the “human” element in science.

I’ve ranted for long enough, and I’m not sure I’ve said everything I wanted to say. I believe that space exploration is something that we as a species should continue to pursue. And if you haven’t seen Interstellar yet, go see it, I’d love to hear other thoughts on the film.

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