Heavens above: the achievement of Curiosity and the Hubble Space Telescope

Long may our exploration of the heavens continue.

If it’s celestial wisdom you’re looking for at this time of year, you could do worse than take a moment to consider Nasa’s achievements. Up there, out there, are objects that give cause to reflect on things bigger than any one of us. Maggie Aderin- Pocock writes about Voyager here, but let’s look at the other two parts of the trinity: Curiosity and the Hubble Space Telescope.

On 12 December, Nasa scientists unveiled Hubble pictures that show the oldest galaxies in the universe. It has taken 13.4 billion years for their light to reach us from a time when the universe was just 500 million years old. The images promise to help us gather knowledge on one of the most opaque periods of cosmic history.

The Curiosity probe is roving around on the surface of Mars, sending back not only pictures, but the results of chemistry experiments that could tell us our true place in the cosmos. The recent (still tentative) discovery of carbon in the Red Planet’s soil could mark the moment we began to accept that the building blocks of life are scattered throughout the universe; that earth is special only to us, its inhabitants.

Despite our awe, it is not the heavens that are most impressive. In fact, wonder at the beauty and scale of the sights in the universe is almost an inappropriate reaction. Did we expect it to be small and dreary? What really is wonderful is that a carbon-based life form, having evolved in one unremarkable corner of the cosmos, has developed the temerity and skill to probe and explore it. We tame the universe and have begun to understand its origins and mysteries.

We’ve had our failures – this Christmas, it is nine years since the Beagle 2 mission, for instance – but we keep pushing ourselves into the heavens nonetheless. Long may it continue.

A self portrait by Nasa's Curiosity probe on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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Why I’m sick of fake theorists lamenting the “millennial problem”

Wise Thinkers lament smartphones, social media, and self-entitlement – ignoring how badly off this generation is thanks to its predecessors.

There is a certain sort of Wise Thinker who loves nothing more than to offer advice on the “problem” of “millennials”. Oh, Wise Thinker, where has this mysterious generation of lazy, entitled narcissists come from, and how am I supposed to deal with the ones who keep showing up in my office?

The answer, we’re told, is a massive failure in parenting that started in the 1980s – suddenly children were told they were special, that they could do anything they wanted to. Worse, they were shown they didn’t have to work for it – they were given participation medals just for showing up, and any time they did badly at school, they didn’t need to improve; their parents just complained to get them better marks!

No evidence that any of this is substantially true (or caused the claimed effects) need be offered: that can be left as an exercise to the reader’s own preconceptions.

(They’ve given out participation medals in the modern Olympics since it started in 1896, by the way. No one ever seems to mention that.)

A particularly refined example of this sort of thing has been doing the rounds of social media recently – a video clip in which motivational speaker and TED talkist Simon Sinek rehearses the familiar lines but then makes a rather bolder claim: millennials are losing the capacity for joy (and some of them are even killing themselves), and it’s all because of mobile phones.

Their use of mobile phones and social media is addictive, Sinek says, in exactly the same way as drugs and alcohol. He refers to the brain chemical dopamine, which immediately turns his every utterance into rigorous neuroscience – regardless of the quantity and quality of the evidence available to support it.

That every millennial is suffering from this terrible addiction is taken as read, as much as everyone who’s ever had a glass of wine is a raging alcoholic. Non-millennials, we all know, completely eschew the mobile phone and have never been seen on Facebook.

But this is only part of the broader millennial addiction to instant gratification – same-day delivery, movies-on-demand, even getting a date is now as simple as swiping right, as anyone who’s never actually tried online dating will surely agree!

It seems all millennials can have everything they want, whenever they want it, so they will never learn the hard lessons that the Wise Thinkers learned in the old times: how to be patient, how to have self-restraint, how to work hard for something.

This can surely be the first time in history in which the old have considered the young to be impatient and lazy.

Worst-case scenario? Sinek points to a rise in depression and suicide, and lets us draw arbitrary lines as we please. His best-case scenario: the millennial will never learn how to find joy, unless, apparently, their benevolent employer helps them with such innovative solutions as banning phones in meetings. Sure.

There is of course nothing wrong with some scepticism towards new technology and the effect it can have on the fragile human mind. If only we had heeded the scientist Conrad Gessner’s dire warning of a powerful new invention that would overwhelm, confuse and ultimately harm us with its unstoppable flood of information. That invention? The book. Gessner lived through the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century. History doesn’t record whether or not he wore stupid glasses.

But maybe Sinek is right – maybe only by abandoning the embrace of Siri will you know true love, millennials, some of you who are actually in your mid-thirties these days and have probably already started tutting at those younger than you who never learned “real” patience by sending texts on a Nokia 3310.

It must be a lot of fun, theorising about the possible origins of the “millennial problem”, and coming up with brilliant outside-the-box solutions to it. Weird, though, that all these Wise Thinkers never seem to talk about how many millennials started their careers in the midst (or the aftermath) of an uncertain job market caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Or how many of them had to start their careers with unpaid internships. Or, more fundamentally, that they’re the first generation for decades to earn lower wages than their predecessors.

Perhaps, for some strange reason, managers so supposedly desperate to understand millennial employees are not quite as interested in paying motivational speakers to tell them about things like that.