JFK’s speech at Rice: Unfolding ignorance and doing difficult things

You know the most famous part of former President John F. Kennedy’s September 1962 speech at Rice University. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The rest of the speech, though, is also full of gems.

First, though, let’s accept it for what it is: A justification to the American people for spending lots of taxpayer money on sending Americans to the moon, in an effort to dominate the space arena. A year and a half before, the Soviets had already sent a man to space two weeks before the U.S. did. But the moon? That was a different ball of wax.

Kennedy said that if we compress the entirety of human civilization into 50 years (and recognize that we didn’t know about Gobekli Tepe or some other societies we have since learned about), Christianity was 2 years old and penicillin had been around for a week. You know how I like a perspective shift.

But this is my favorite bit (minus the glad-handing of Rice and Houston and Texas, typical politician stuff):

We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

“The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

I don’t know has fallen out of favor. Because we all have the ability to look something up with a gadget in our pockets, we are expected to have all the facts available via the device in our brains already. We are expected to have opinions on everything, strongly, without a willingness to change our minds. The worst thing we could do, it seems, is to learn something new, and incorporate that new information into an evolving viewpoint.

That last bit isn’t new. In 1992, an anti-Bill Clinton ad attacked the then-presidential candidate for having at different times held different views on the same topic, and an anti-John Kerry campaign in 2004 attacked the candidate for flip-flopping.

Those were before smart phones, before everything we’d ever said or thought was online and searchable.

***

It was less than 60 years after Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon that someone taught human brain cells in a petri dish to play a video game.

If you don’t have lots of questions about that, let’s break it down a little bit.

Someone taught human brain cells in a petri dish how to play a video game.

First, someone designed a video game. That was actually almost 50 years ago now, just a few years after we actually went to the moon. And by “we,” I mean people. I had nothing to do with it. In all likelihood, you didn’t, either.

Next, someone isolated some brain cells, replicated them outside of a human body, taught them something, communicating without ears or eyes, and figured out how to allow them to play a video game with no hands or other controlling device.

Are you getting a grasp on how much you don’t know yet?

The more we discover, the more there is to go on to discover.

We’re working on figuring out black holes these days. What questions will be opened up then?

We’re working on mining asteroids for minerals. What problems we haven’t even thought of might those minerals solve?

If Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff is correct, the first time the U.S. sent someone into space, they neglected to think about the possibility a very fit military test pilot might have to pee. A few months ago, we sent a 90-year-old actor who used to play the captain of a space ship on a science fiction television show set far in the future into space, for real this time. He didn’t have to have the same fitness level as a test pilot.

***

There’s never been a more exciting, interesting, strange time to be alive, and so many of us spend so much of time — that nonrenewable, unretrievable commodity we watch fly by — doing easy things, asking easy questions, because they’re easy, not because they’re hard.

Exactly the opposite of the way Kennedy said we’d do things.

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