Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Space Shuttle: End of an Era

Ever since I was a young child, I have been completely captivated by and utterly fascinated with outer space. My earliest career ambition was to be an astronaut. I actually still possess my journal from kindergarten, which contains a page where my teacher had us write about and draw what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I drew myself (rather poorly, unfortunately, as I lack any artistic skills whatsoever) jumping around on the Moon in a green and silver spacesuit. I absolutely loved watching the Space Shuttle launches on TV.  When I was around 8 or 9, I even attempted to convince my parents to take our summer vacation in Florida so that we could visit Cape Canaveral and attend a shuttle launch . Although I was unsuccessful, probably because I was the lone member of my family truly interested in manned space flights, I continued to dream of eventually being one of the astronauts blasting off on a magnificent Space Shuttle.

Regrettably, it just wasn't meant to be. By the age of 11, I realized that my aspiration to become an astronaut was wholly unrealistic. First, I had moderate asthma which was not well controlled by my medications at the time. Second, I was rapidly approaching legal blindness in my left eye due to severe amblyopia (lazy eye), which has left me with almost no depth perception and an enormous tendency towards clumsiness. I was just not good astronaut material.

Despite being extremely disappointed, I was still mesmerized by the perplexing wonders of the universe. One day in sixth grade, we took a class trip to the school library. I quickly dashed to the non-fiction science section as always because, even at the tender age of 11, I was a hardcore science nerd. Having been at this elementary school for four years, I had already read practically every single book in that section, so I instantly noticed that there were several new books.  Excitedly, I seized one which appeared especially intriguing and deposited myself into one of the comfy, upholstered chairs.

The book was about the Hubble Space Telescope. I cracked open the book and began to flip through the pages, looking at the amazing images the telescope had captured of our universe. However, when I reached the now-famous image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, my breath was literally taken away. I stared in pure awe at its extraordinary beauty. Before we left that day, I checked out all the library's books on nebulae, as I was fiercely desperate to learn everything I could about these astonishing and majestic phenomena.

Only a couple months later, I was enjoying my final night at a week-long Girl Scout camp in western Oklahoma. One cool tradition was that, weather permitting, we would spend our last night at camp on the tennis courts, instead of in our cabins. Once all the girls were settled in their sleeping bags, the camp counselors showed us constellations, asterisms, planets, star clusters, the Andromeda Galaxy, and the edge-on band of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  They wielded green laser pointers, in order to indicate and/or trace out the different celestial objects for us, and passed around pairs of night vision binoculars, so that we could better observe the compact objects, like the planets, the star clusters, and the Andromeda galaxy.

The incontrovertible highlight of the night, though, was that a minor meteor shower was taking place. Over the span of 3 hours, I got to see about 20 meteors (although we called them shooting stars at the time). Even better, this was the first time in my life I had ever I had ever witnessed meteors. It was absolutely spectacular.

Those two events are what sparked my interest in astronomy and inspired me to dedicate my life to it, in order that I might unravel some of the countless mysteries of the universe.

However, despite exchanging my dream of being an astronaut for my desire to be an astronomer, I have maintained a profound enthusiasm for the Space Shuttle Program and eagerly followed each mission since I was 12, celebrating triumphs and grieving for loss.

In my opinion, the Space Shuttle's most outstanding accomplishment is the still continuing construction of the International Space Station.  Throughout my Jr. High, High School, and College years, I have watched intently as the astronauts, whom I tremendously admire, have gradually erected the International Space Station, a monument both to human scientific achievement and international cooperation.

Of course, I was immensely devastated by the Columbia disaster in 2003. I distinctly remember watching the news, thinking "how could this have happened?" and softly crying for hours as more and more details trickled into newsrooms across the country. NASA, however, was able to come back from this tragedy and continue to advance the frontier in space and manned space flight.

Last Friday was the very last launch of Atlantis, the very last launch of any of the Space Shuttles. I woke up early in order to watch Atlantis propelled into orbit on a colossal cascade of roaring flames. Knowing I will never see another Space Shuttle launch, I could not stop myself from shedding a few tears.

This coming Thursday Atlantis will return to Earth from its final mission and land, most likely at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, or else at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, finally bringing about the end of a glorious era, which has not only significantly influenced my own life, but also the lives of millions of American's. I know chances are good that I will cry even more as the Space Shuttle program I have followed for ten years finally reaches its completion.

So, I must now say my final goodbye to Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis. Thank you for all your incredible contributions to science, as well as all your totally awesome launches (especially the ones at night!)! You will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ease of Dehumanizing Strangers

A couple weeks ago, Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology wrote an interesting post titled Tales of the Demonic. In it, he discusses how the bureaucratic structures of institutions can dehumanize human interactions.

As an example, he shares a story where a worker from the electric company comes to shut off his electricity due to non-payment. Beck, knowing that he has been paying his bill, becomes understandably upset. Obviously, the electric company has made an error. However, despite the fact that this mistake is not the fault of the worker in his backyard, and that the worker is merely doing his job, Beck directs his anger at him. Instead of seeing the worker as another human being, he sees him solely as the agent of the faceless electric company.

All of us have been in a similar situation at one time or another. Just last week, I became quite frustrated while speaking to a representative of my cell phone company. I had a $40 charge on my bill I knew was wrong and the representative did not seem to know how to assist me. I was rather impatient with him, which I now regret. Although he was not the one who messed-up my bill, just a guy working in the call center, I focused my anger on him, just as Beck did with the electric company worker.

Beck points out:
Consider the stories above. In each of the cases human beings are not interacting directly. We are, rather, interacting through the power structures of the world. I don't know the name of the man in my backyard about to turn off my electricity. And he doesn't know my name. Our relationship is, rather, defined by our locations in a bureaucratic power structure. He's an agent of the electric company. I'm an address on his work order. That is how our relationship is defined. A relationship stripped of its humanity. And as a consequence I have to work mightily to treat this man with respect. He isn't to blame. But everything about this dehumanized interaction makes me want to yell at him. To direct my anger at him.
I think Beck makes an absolutely wonderful point. However, I do not think this effect is limited exclusively to bureaucratic power structures. Certainly bureaucratic structures make it disgustingly easy to dehumanize people, but human beings have been demonstrating for thousands of years that we are terribly efficient at dehumanizing people on our own. We dehumanize those who are different from us. We dehumanize those whom we disagree with. We dehumanize those whom we are angry at.

Sometimes, it's obvious. The Nazi's dehumanized the Jews, first taking away their civil rights and then exterminating them en masse. American whites dehumanized blacks in order to justify slavery, and we still have not escaped the curse of racism in the US. Throughout world history, one religion has dehumanized the adherents of another religion, leading to countless wars. While there were often bureaucratic institutions, particularity governments, behind those examples of dehumanization, I believe the feelings originated on an individual level. The governments came later, specifically created in order to carry out the discrimination of the dehumanized groups.

However, often the dehumanization is not so obvious. What is your first reaction when someone cuts you off on the highway? Or when someone bumps into you hard at the store and then walks away quickly without even glancing at you, let alone apologizing? Or when a clerk at the bank treats you discourteously? Or when we hear someone expressing political/religious/social views completely opposite of our own?

We become angry and indignant. We think that these people are idiots or thoughtless jerks. Sometimes, we retaliate, give them a taste of their own medicine. Most of all, we think "I would never do/believe such a terrible thing".

Basically, we dehumanize them. We believe their behavior to be base, below us and that we, being better people, are above such behaviors.

But that is where I see a major problem. 

Can you honestly say that you have never done something unintentionally idiotic or rude? Maybe you were distracted. Maybe you just got some bad news and were upset. Maybe you were in a rush to get somewhere. No matter what it is, we usually find a way to justify our actions, to explain it away. We do the same when a family member or friend does something foolish or mean. We know there are extenuating circumstances.

Of course, if we admit the possibly that we might have unintentionally committed stupid or inconsiderate acts, we must also admit that the people who are rude to us might also be acting unintentionally. Perhaps the guy who cut you off is heading to the hospital because his father is sick. Perhaps the person who bumps into you at the store and just walks away is in a daze because they just lost their spouse. Perhaps the clerk at the bank was rude because she was having an awful day.

Too often, I believe we make assumptions about people we are not familiar with; assumptions which allow us to dehumanize them.

Over the past few years, I have become quite sensitive to the human tendency to disparage people they do not personally know. I have worked to recognize when I am doing it and to remember not to harshly judge people I do not know on the basis of a single negative interaction.

The reason I have become so cognizant of this came from watching my step-dad. Anytime I go somewhere with him, he find reasons to insult the strangers who cross our paths. Every person in a parking lot is a moron too stupid to watch where he or she is going. Every person in a suit and tie is a worthless administrator who spends their days firing people who actually work for a living. Every person whose children aren't absolutely quiet are bad parents.

While I realize my step-dad is an extreme example, once I began to pay attention, I was amazed at how often I or others would harshly scorn others for actions which probably had no ill-intent.

I believe it is extremely vital that we remember the inherent worth of each person we interact with, even if our interaction with that person is not positive. While at times it can sound trite, we are all human beings deserving of respect, no matter our race, age, nationality, gender, political ideology, or religious beliefs. If we have to choose between condemning a person or giving them the benefit of the doubt, I believe we should always choose the latter. We will become better people for it.