TEDx talk by OAD Director Kevin Govender

Read the full text of the speech below and download the .pdf of the presentation here. For a translation of this text in Spanish and a discussion about it, please follow this link.

Astronomy for Humankind – let’s explore this.

Here we have the Earth. What a place! The consolidated image of everything that we know as life – the trees, plants, insects, ocean life, pets, friends, family – human beings. The whole of humankind exists only here – on earth. This place that Carl Sagan described as the “pale blue dot” along with an excellent description of this planet we all know so well. This planet is the place where humankind has evolved, adapted, and flourished. To the point where we are pushing the planet to the absolute limits of what it can provide us.

Who are these human beings? They’re you and me and everyone we’ve met or will ever meet. They are individuals walking around this planet with the most powerful resource carried on their shoulders – the human mind. Think about it – every one of those people is carrying around a universe of their own – a universe in which they give their own completely individual levels of importance to things. Maybe the most important thing to that person is that he’s just broken up with his girlfriend. Maybe that person is feeling really ill from a bad lunch she had. Maybe that person forgot to put on deodorant that morning and is terrified that the people around them are going to notice. Maybe that person really can’t stand this crowd and is growing more and more upset every time someone bumps into them. The world is full of these individual universes. Full of minds that have the ability to comprehend that that bright sun that’s shining on them is actually a star that’s much much much bigger than their whole planet.

That in terms of volume you could fit a million earths into that sun.

They are capable of comprehending that that star – their star – is only one of billions of stars in a mind blowingly big structure they call the milky way – similar to this galaxy. And their minds have the ability to comprehend that our galaxy is only one of billions of galaxies out there.

That this picture, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, has captured thousands of objects which although they look like smudges or dots, are actually entire galaxies with billions of stars, each potentially having planets around them, some perhaps with life on them. Our minds are able to take this journey – and astronomy leads us on it as it explores the far reaches of the universe, employing some of the greatest minds and the most advanced technology to find out what I just told you.

What does this matter to the challenges we face as humankind?

This journey that brings our imagination to the absolute limits of size, scale, speed, time – is a journey that brings us simple perspective of the world we live in. It brings us the simple reality of our place in the universe. And this reality can sometime be terrifying – can make us feel like we’re so insignificant that life doesn’t really matter. At the same time this reality, this perspective, shows us that in this universe of countless possibilities, we know of only one special place that has life. And what a life it has! Not just little microorganisms, not just plant life and animal life but Life that can build buildings like this, develop amazing technologies like this, and even question the origins of the universe and life itself. Astronomy makes us think!

So why is this important? Let’s think together. Let’s think about all the hectic challenges that we are facing in this world… let me throw out some random words and you put images to them.

What do you think about when you hear the word WAR? Who is fighting who? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? What level of violence do you associate with WAR?

What about POVERTY? What image would you put to that? Which part of the world is your mind zoning in on?

And the ENVIRONMENT? What images does your mind conjure when we think about ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION? Are any of those images linked to the place you live?

UNEMPLOYMENT? Whose faces come to mind? Which countries do you see when you hear this word?

FUNDAMENTALISM? What does that mean to you? Is violence associated in your mind?

WOMEN AND CHILD ABUSE? What scenes of violence do you see? Is it active or passive? How do you define it?

So with all these words – and the images your mind brought up – how many of those were located in the so called first world? Who were the good guys in your war – the invaders or the invaded? What was the skin colour of the people in your poverty image? Did you link the fundamentalism to a religion perhaps? Or perhaps to those hectic atheists, who reject all notions of religion to a point of preaching? Perhaps those who uphold existing laws are fundamentalist – if they do it regardless of good reason to change. When thinking of women abuse do you include the gender bias that’s found in almost all sectors of academia and governance?

My point is that we all have our biases but we also have the ability to question them. The strength of astronomy is that it challenges our perspectives to the largest scales possible. It explores the absolute limits of the universe and stretches our imagination into the unimaginable. It takes your mind and pokes it and twists it and stretches it and chews it up. Then it brings you back down to earth! And if you take a moment to bring all that mind bending mental exercise back down to earth with you then you tackle the daily challenges with a different perspective.

What sense does war make when you look at the earth like this – what sense do intolerances make, race, ethnicity language, nationality. What sense does it make, looking at the world like this, that a third to half of all food produced is never consumed!

So why astronomy? The stretching of minds is certainly not unique to astronomy. The ability to question, to think, is linked to many areas. All the sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics – stimulates thinking. The arts – music, poetry, philosophy, anthropology – all stimulate thinking. And the technology we have – the fruit of a combination of science and culture – stimulates questions, innovation and development of further technology.

Now I’m not standing here to try to justify investments in astronomy – nor am I trying to convince you that you should take up a career in astronomy nor am I trying to sing praise of why astronomy will change the world. I’m here because I want to make the world a better place – and as my tool of choice, I chose astronomy. I chose astronomy as a tool to empower the minds of the world. I’m here because I see astronomy as an absolutely incredible tool for this purpose.

So why is this field such a powerful tool? Well, astronomy links in to all these areas. From the technology we need to use to explore the universe – the big telescopes, the big data, the precision instruments – to the science that is needed – the mathematics, the physics, the chemistry, even the biology as we search for life – to the culture that is inherent in this field – the fact that every culture on the planet has had some links to astronomy, whether it was the sun, the moon, the stars or simple idea of night and day. So if we talk about astronomy for humankind we’re talking about astronomy and its strength in all these areas – technology, science and culture. Areas that stimulate thinking and promote conventional definitions of development.

Imagine for example, the innovation that was needed to take these little bits of light coming from a star or galaxy so far away and figuring out how hot it is, how far it is, whether it’s moving toward or away from us, how fast that movement is, what elements it’s made of – all that information – from just whispers of light captured by our instruments in astronomy. Now imagine all that ingenuity applied to the everyday challenges. Imagine that that special place that astronomy holds in cultures across the world and using it unite people, to inspire people, to move people. Imagine this field stimulating other areas of science within a university teaching environment – empowering people in seemingly isolated environments to participate in world class research using data that’s freely available, developing minds across the world. This is what astronomy CAN do. So what IS being done to use this really cool tool to make the world a better place?

The IAU is the world body that promotes and safeguards the science of astronomy. It’s basically the custodians of the field with over 10000 professional astronomers globally. This professional organization has recognized the importance of astronomy to make the world a better place and has developed a plan to make that happen. This plan builds on the immense success of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, and uses all the strengths of astronomy in the different areas to impact on the development of the world. Currently there are around 200 projects around the world linked with this plan which we are trying to make happen – with funding for only 5% of those. Of these and the many bigger international programmes and activities going on I want to bring your attention to just one – the Universe Awareness programme.

This is a programme where the whole idea is to inspire young children with the beauty and scale of the universe. What has become a defining resource has been this – an inflatable globe made up of satellite images of the earth – known as an earthball. This simple earthball has been used all around the world, from the most rural corners of the planet to the big cities and fancy schools, to give a perspective to young people. It is a way of broadening children’s minds to see the earth as it is seen from space. To stretch their minds such that they can question the things they see around them. That they may question the reason for wars, the reason for discrimination, the reason for us as a human species to suck the earth dry and destroy any living thing that gets in our way. And by stretching their minds to lay the foundations for a generation of leaders, of thinkers, of problem solvers who are inspired to tackle the problems they face around them with a peaceful, tolerant, respectful attitude.

I’m standing here, trying to make the world a better place with astronomy as my instrument, because I was one of those kids. I grew up in a rural part of South Africa and had access to one of the most clear star filled skies in the world. But you know what, when we were kids we were told that if we counted the stars, we would get warts! So I grew up with my mind confined to the beliefs around me. I grew up under the glorious African skies, and was afraid to look up. Then in high school I learned about what the moon and the stars were – and then the warts idea just didn’t make sense anymore. And I started to question everything asking whether something made sense or not – and that led me into a career in physics and mathematics.

So, is this the answer then? Will all this knowledge indeed make us the kind of people who will lead and change the world? To answer that, in the spirit of mind stretching, think of the most senior academics you know. How many of them would you model these leaders and world changers against? The sad truth is that sometimes those who lead the technical deep scientific aspects of our fields – the custodians of our knowledge – the ones who understand the most the scale and wonder of the universe – are sometimes those who have the biggest egos, the unconscious gender biases, the lack of integrity and human sensitivity. Do you question your teacher? Not just on the scientific topic but on ethical grounds human grounds. Do you allow for their integrity to be challenged by hard questions about the humanity of their actions? The reality is that sometimes the custodians of our greatest knowledge live comfortably in ivory towers happy to remain far from the ground and human’s challenges.

The point that I’m trying to make is that sometimes when we become so consumed with the forefront production of knowledge and the quest for the glory that comes with it within the current academic system, that we lose touch with our humanity. What does this human knowledge base mean if it is not in the hands and minds of humankind. How can we say that we as scientists as explorers are expanding the knowledge of humankind when the majority of humans don’t have access to it?

So, in asking the question of the future of who knows what I put this thought to you. That if knowledge that is generated by you as a scientist is not accessible and digestible by the public then you have not arrived. If you cannot explain the big picture of your deep mathematical equations to a person on the street, then you still have a way to go. In the future of who knows what, a future that we hope is brighter, the “who” must be the majority of the world’s population and the “what” must be the inspiring aspects of our science. Those parts of our discoveries that change perspectives, that stimulate thinking, that spur curiosity, that evokes in every human being the deep passion for life that defines us. The passion that makes us the personification of a human being! The “what” must be the spark that makes us want to learn more – makes us want to explore – to tackle problems such that the “who”, the majority of humankind, become problem solvers and empower themselves to address the challenges they face.

What astronomy can do for humankind – with all these big ideas and minds stretching – is to activate the spark that drives inspired thought within us. Astronomy activates the most powerful resource on the face of the planet – the human mind. It feeds our ability to think. That ability has kept us tackling the challenges we face in the world. We tackle it with our science, our technology, our culture. Challenges of poverty inequality unemployment discrimination. This is the reality which can only be solved with leadership equipped with inspiration, tolerance, motivation and questioning minds that are not afraid to challenge any obstacle in their path towards making the world a better place.

Astronomy gives us the perspective we need to be able to change the world! It is an endless source of sustainable renewable energy for our minds!

Producing knowledge is only a small part in the big picture. It’s the dissemination of that knowledge that really matters. Everything that I said about the possibilities of astronomy impacting the world – everything is only possible if that knowledge lies with the majority of the people on the planet. And although life tends to consume us – we get caught up in daily challenges – we may forget. The strength of astronomy is that if we manage to hook a message of peace to the moon – hook a message of hope to the stars – then whenever we look up at these objects – visible to all of humanity – perhaps we will remember what they see – this planet – and our minds will be empowered! Influence human thought and you influence the trajectory of our entire planet!”