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Apathy Now!

Would the discovery of extraterrestrial life really change the world?

Are you ready for some exciting news about apathy?

Back when Dan Goldin was administrator of NASA, his sister was one of my students. She thoughtfully told me he totally loved Discover magazine — especially my astronomy page. Pleased to hear it, I followed him closely after that, which is why I vividly remember August 6, 1996, when he called a press conference to make a jaw-dropping announcement: NASA’s analysis of the Antarctic martian meteorite ALH84001 revealed the possibility of life. Life on Mars! It finally happened!

I quickly turned to my long-suffering wife and yelled: “Now we’ll find out!” 

I’d long suspected that the endlessly repeated adage that “everything will change if we find extraterrestrial life” was wrong, that it gave our apathetic citizenry too much credit, that people wouldn’t care if geeky scientists found evidence of some microscopic or plantlike organisms in a distant place.

Even today, that adage is still repeated like a mantra. Bill Nye’s December 3 op-ed piece in The New York Times said the same thing: finding extraterrestrial life would profoundly alter our everyday attitudes.

Goldin’s announcement wasn’t about some distant exoplanet. This was Mars. It was next door. So I figured, now we’ll finally know how the public reacts.

I don’t want to say I told you so. Actually, that’s not true. I do want to say that. Because as I paid close attention the next day, nobody talked about the life-on-Mars discovery. People didn’t care. (That Goldin’s announcement later proved too optimistic isn’t relevant here.) It was one more sign our culture is scientifically apathetic.

Fast forward to 2017. Someone in Sweden posted gorgeous Facebook photos of atmospheric ice crystal phenomena. They showed halos, the upper tangent arc, the parhelic circle, and other cool stuff. Then I read the comments.

“Wake up, folks,” wrote the first guy. “Here’s proof the government is releasing metals into the atmosphere!”

The next commentator agreed. “Absolutely! Fifteen years ago I saw a ring around the Sun for the first time. Now I often see rings. The government is poisoning the air.”

“You’re wrong,” I said to her in my mind. “Early on, you never noticed rings —which are called halos, by the way — because you didn’t watch the sky and don’t know about refraction phenomena. Now you’re aware of rings, so you see them because they’re common. And, incidentally, metallic particles can’t refract light and wouldn’t resemble ice crystal effects. They wouldn’t form halos in the first place.”

The meteorite ALH84001 is a 4.5 billion-year-old chunk of Mars’ crust that arrived on Earth about 13,000 years ago. In 1996, NASA announced that the meteorite might contain fossils of early martian life — a statement that didn’t have a major impact on society or its view of science.
NASA/JSC/Stanford University
It’s no use. Ignorance of science seems only to be growing.

When I was hired to run astronomy programs at the big 2015 Wanderlust yoga festival in Killington, Vermont, a staff member met me at the office.

“Did you see the news?” she asked. “The Earth is flat.”

“What? Earth isn’t flat.”

“Yes it is. They’ve proven it. It’s all over the net.”

“You don’t have to believe me,” I said. “Do you have any friends in California?”


“Then during the next sunset here, phone your California friends. They’ll tell you their Sun is halfway up the sky. Yet it’s on the horizon here. So Earth can’t be flat.”

Her face had a “don’t bother me” expression. I get the reasoning: Our government lies. So if it insists Earth is a ball, it means Earth is flat.

Call it fake science or anything you want. It’s spreading. Climate change is not real. We never went to the Moon. White lines in the sky are from government programs. A planet named Nibiru is on a collision course with Earth. Armageddon is coming. Aliens are already here. Astronomers are keeping everything secret.

The problem lies deeper than the sad reality that fewer teenagers are participating in outdoor hands-on nature hobbies like astronomy, bird-watching, or canoeing. Nonetheless, many are glued to screens with the potential to believe the fakery.

Our response? We mustn’t try to bring young people into real science too quickly. Instead, reality should be introduced incrementally. The first step is a return to the situation a decade ago, which was mere indifference. That’s an achievable objective. To help, we’re offering a new bumper sticker: “Apathy Now!”

We’ve founded NAP — the National Apathy Promotion. Our goal is to get 1 million teenagers a year to say, “Don’t bother me with astronomy.” If you donate, my friends, we can replace the current insistence that Mars is a secret alien military base and that congressmen are reptilians (no joke, Google it) with a return to the NASA glory years of “I don’t care.”

It’s a lofty goal. But with your help, we can succeed.


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