May 7, 2009

The Sense of Wonder at the Crossroads

The WonderDefinitely, the Crossroads was the best conference I have ever attended in my life. The danger of driving sleepy through foggy roads overnight from Jersey to Cambridge was well worth it. If I was a real journalist, I would have written numerous science topics from that event because all speakers were excellent in their presentations. Every single one of them provided plenty of ideas to write about.
Gerrit Verschuur gave a nice warm-up with the Drake Equation. Dimitar Sasselov mentioned "Life as a Planetary Phenomenon", an idea put forward by Andy Knoll--which is the best phrase I ever heard in years. Maria Zuber's presentation about landing humans on Mars was detailed, and she gave a very informed account of the challenges that a human would undertake on a round-trip mission to Mars. Craig Venter gave an overview about synthetic life which made me very curious how these artificial lifeforms would provide insights to Astrobiologists looking for alien biomarkers on other worlds. Juan Enriquez gave a mesmerizing tour of exciting research brewing around a corner in Cambridge that gave hints of the Singularity, and the coming of Homo Evolutis. Then Peter Ward gave an eye-opening account of his Medea Hypothesis, urging us to stop CO2 and engineer our way out of Global Warming to become true anti-Medeans. David Charbonneau spoke with utmost clarity and eloquence that for a moment I saw Carl Sagan in him. I also think Charbonneau owned the *best* slide ever--Welcome to the Era of Comparative Exoplanetology. He also gave a very positive note about the role of Amateur Astronomy in contributing to Science specially in the field of Planet-hunting. I was delighted to know that the future of Citizen Astronomy is brighter than ever before.
At that point however, the moderator David Aguilar--an Astronomer who's ever so keen, promptly noticed that the conference had already taken an unexpected turn. And it was punctuated by Freeman Dyson who was the last speaker.
Dyson opened his talk with the story about William Herschel who was a dedicated Amateur Astronomer that made excellent contributions to Science and Astronomy. I was moved when Dyson said, "Amateurs, do not be discouraged!"
Thus when I was picked by David Aguilar to have the privilege of asking the last question, I worked hard to contain myself in front of Dyson. "Sir, I am touched by your opening story about Herschel, and how you encouraged Amateurs. And I would like to hear it all over again. May I ask that you inspire us all once more?"
Dyson then proceeds to mention the meeting of Worlds, intersection of Cultures, melding of Disciplines, and the reconnection of Poetry, Science, Art, and the role that technology will play. He then goes on to recommend an upcoming book "The Age of Wonder", by Richard Holmes. It is a tale about the sense of wonder, a common trait among the Romantic Poets and Scientists during Herschel's era.
Finally Dyson concludes the conference saying that we will soon witness the coming of a new Age of Wonder.
Indeed we are on the Crossroads, at the intersection of exciting new worlds where we shall see wondrous things in the coming years.
As I drove back home through the rain, I was mesmerized all the way. I went to Cambridge seeking adventure and inspiration, and I truly found it, with a sense of Wonder.