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Neil deGrasse Tyson: The 3 Fears That Drive Us to Accomplish Extraordinary Things

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Published on Jul 19, 2013

Nobody wants to die. And not only that, people especially don't want to die poor. But if you have to die, and God forbid, die penniless, it's good to have lavished sufficient praise on a deity so you might be in his good favor in the afterlife.

According to the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, these fears account for "the most expensive, ambitious projects humans have ever undertaken."

Take the Pyramids, which are "basically expensive tombstones," Tyson says. The praise of deity or royalty also got us the great cathedrals of Europe. We're not investing the same portion of our wealth and energy in churches nowadays, but Tyson says the other two fears are still quite powerful.

War, or the fear of death led to the construction of The Great Wall of China. It also led to the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project. But would the threat of war get us to Mars today? It's conceivable, but not likely. So if "kings and gods are not sufficient in modern times to undergo heavy projects," Tyson asks, what's left?

The promise of economic return. That's what is responsible for hugely expensive enterprises such as the voyages of Columbus, Magellan voyages, and Lewis and Clark.

In the video below, Tyson wholeheartedly endorses this driver, as the impact would be as follows:

"You can go into space, transform society, change the zeitgeist of your culture, turn everyone into people who embrace and value science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM field."

Transcript -- So about a decade ago I realized that if we were going to go to Mars with people it would be really expensive, and so I thought to myself: what activities have human cultures engaged in, in the past that were as expensive as what it might be to go to Mars and what motivated them to spend that money? I was going to fill a whole book, "Motivations to do Great Things, Great Expensive Things," and then I'd find the task, I'd find the activity that most closely resembled what it would be to go to Mars in the 21st century and I'd say, oh, is that what that culture did with their population, is that how they raised the money, is that how they convinced the people? I was going to fill a whole book of this. It would be a nice little reference catalog about how to get something done in modern times.

In conducting that exercise what I found is that there are only three drivers, not more, not less, three drivers that account for the most expensive, ambitious projects humans have ever undertaken. One of them is the praise of deity or royalty. That's what got you the pyramids. They're basically expensive tombstones. That's what got the cathedral and church building of Europe. That was a period where huge fractions of societal investment went into those activities. There is less of that today, so that's not really a useful driver to think about how we might transform the 21st century. Another driver is war. Nobody wants to die. That gets you the Great Wall of China. That gets you the Manhattan Project where we built the bomb. That gets you the Apollo Project. Another driver, the search for economic return—nobody wants to die, nobody wants to die poor. The search for economic return, that's what is responsible for the Columbus voyages, the Magellan voyages, Lewis and Clark figuring out what is beyond that frontier in hugely expensive enterprises, conducted by governments.

So if we're going to go to Mars, and if war is not the driver—because it could easily become the driver if you get another space race with someone we view as a military adversary; I wonder who that might be—but if peaceful heads prevail, then war is not the driver available to you. Let's check our list. Well, kings and gods are not sufficient in modern times to undergo heavy projects such as that. What's left? The promise of economic return.

You can go into space, transform society, change the zeitgeist of your culture, turn everyone into people who embrace and value science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM field. Whether or not people go into space or serve the space industry they will have the sensitivity to those fields necessary to stimulate unending innovation in the technological fields, and it's that innovation in the 21st century that will drive tomorrow's economies.

Any frontier in space now involves biologists—we're looking for life—, chemists, geologists, physicists, mechanical engineering, electrical engineers, aerospace engineers, astrophysicists, all the traditional sciences and engineering frontiers are captured in any ambitious goal to explore space. We can recapture those times and reinvent America. We've already invented America once before. It's ripe. It's ready and it's willing, I think, to be invented again.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

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