This brings to mind the particular issue of interest in space exploration in Pakistan. Really? What do missions into outer space or search for extra-terrestrial intelligence even mean to a country like Pakistan, already steeped in problems like poverty, corruption, sectarian genocide and load-shedding? Or is it the case that it’s a country so busy looking down on rationality and critical thinking that it has no time to look up to the sky? Sure, economic woes have a role to play when determining what a developing country can invest in – but equally important is having the foresight to look beyond votes in the next election and having a vision of where this society should be standing twenty years from now. This vision would come with an understanding of the fact that the very solution to the above-mentioned economic and consequently social problems, will stem directly from an investment into ambitious scientific and technological ventures. Space Programs are a solid example of such ventures, where an ambitious quest to answer fundamental questions about the universe lead to a multitude of technological innovations benefiting mankind. The by-products of research carried out by NASA and the ESA have ranged from improvements in satellite communication to life-saving heart-pumps and dialysis filters. Not everyone will set foot on Mars but there’s a high probability that everyone will be using products in their everyday lives that would have come from the toil of scientists and engineers trying to solve complex problems while studying other worlds out there.
India has had a fairly sophisticated space program for a very long time now. Within days of the Curiosity rover landing on mars (another awe-inspiring feat of modern science) earlier this month, the Indian Prime Minister announced India’s very own mission to Mars to be sent out next year. Are we ever going to think beyond rivaling India in cricket and nuclear weapons? Or are we already contemplating developing a rocket that runs on water too?
The issue, in fact, is deeply rooted in prevailing attitudes towards science and progressive thought in our society. The negative and uninformed opinions about science and technology spring largely from the superstitious dogma and delusions of a long-lost religious glory promoted by textbooks with distorted historical facts and reinforced by some sections of the media. As a result, a majority amongst us takes comfort in the myth of Muslims/Pakistanis being ‘destined to greatness’, and consequently feel no need to put ourselves to the test of experiment – rather we would come up with hoaxes to justify ourselves. Take the example of moon-landing. With the exception of a few educated people who actually recognize it as a monumental achievement of science, a popular myth in many local circles is that Neil Armstrong had converted to Islam for some godforsaken reason. A simple Google search would reveal that he publicly clarified, there was absolutely no truth to such stories. Then, there are those conspiracy theorists who term the entire event of humans landing on the moon as fake, without considering the evidence for it. Such myths are an extension of the same kind of twisted mixing of science and religion that lead people from our country to deny evolution or disown Abdus Salam. The same thinking ridicules astronomy every year when we can’t decide on a single sighting of moon in this country. Unless, we learn to rid ourselves from this delusional lifestyle collectively and embrace scientific thinking as an independent system of knowledge, Carl Sagan’s words will ring true for us ever more hauntingly,
“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.” (The Demon Haunted World)
Speaking of Carl Sagan, here is a short clipping from Cosmos on the significance of the Apollo landing in 1969.