Questions to Consider on Earth Day

For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions, and by the depth of our answers.”—Carl Sagan in Cosmos.

Earthrise, taken from Apollo 8 on December 24, 1968
Image Credit: Bill Anders/NASA
Our relationship to the Earth is complicated. For physicists, the ultimate goal is to understand the world, to be able to describe and predict how matter and energy interact with space and time at all scales. Science journals are brimming with discoveries, predictions, and in-depth explorations of a vast range of topics. This is clearly important. But science isn’t just a scientist’s pursuit. Science and a scientific way of thinking should prompt courageous questions and deep discussions in all of us. 
It’s Earth day, so let’s take a few minutes to consider some Earth-related questions and a few ways that they are being explored.
How are we affecting the future of our planet?
Sea levels could rise much higher than previously predicted if current trends continue and cause significant melting of Antarctica’s ice sheet, according to research published in Nature a few weeks ago.  Polar bears are already swimming more as sea ice melts. Studies show that the public health risks associated with climate change could be tragic. A recent study of consensus studies exploring scientists’ positions on whether recent global warming has been impacted by human behavior shows that climate change experts are in widespread agreement that it has.
What can we do about challenges facing our planet?
From finding a way to test the reliability of storage systems that reduce greenhouse gases by burying carbon dioxide underground to exploring methods for preventing flood-related tragedies, scientists are studying a range of techniques for slowing down and adapting to climate change. Of course we face other serious challenges as well, water and food security, diseases, asteroids, nuclear weapons, and many others whose solutions are rooted in science.
How can we create momentum for addressing long-term challenges to life on Earth?
Maybe you’ve experienced a moment of awe-filled wonder while looking into the vast night sky or taking in an incredible view from a mountaintop. Now imagine being hundreds of thousands of miles from the Earth and gazing back on it from space. This experience has been life-changing for many astronauts. To explore this phenomenon and what it tells us about human psychology, a collaboration of researchers from several institutions* analyzed the words astronauts have used to describe this experience. As you might predict, common themes of beauty, unity, vastness, and connectedness emerged. The findings and analysis were recently published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness, and lead to many follow-up questions. What happens in this moment? Can we reliably reproduce this transformative experience here on Earth?  Could it change behavior? 
*University of Pennsylvania, Harvard Medical School, University of Houston, Tsignhau University, and Thomas Jefferson University

How would our relationship with Earth change if life was, is, or could be sustained on other planets?
Last month NASA announced a major milestone in its Journey to Mars—a journey that aims to put humans on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by the 2030s. Doing so involves the state-of-the-art, flexible spacecraft Orion and a highly advanced version of the Space Launch System. It requires modernizing ground control systems and major facility upgrades at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. As of late March, the final i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed to begin construction on the ground control systems. NASA’s current Mars strategy “Seek Signs of Life” is an attempt to explore the possible existence—past, current, or future—of life on Mars using robotic spacecraft and rovers. Orion will take this effort, and humanity, to a whole new level. 
What questions are important to you?
Curiosity leads to questions, questions lead to exploration, and exploration leads to answers. If you’re not in a position to do science research yourself, there is still a lot you can do in support of finding answers to questions you value. Be curious. Read. Ask questions. Think. Listen. Discuss. Advocate for science. Write. Write letters to Congress and other funding sources encouraging support for research that is important to you. Write thank you emails to scientists whose work you admire and value (this alone could have huge impact). Write to us and share the questions that are important to you on this Earth day.
—Kendra Redmond

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