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Paul Little is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Paul Little: Seems the final frontier is - here

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We may not be space travellers yet, but we have travelled far into the universe to make these discoveries. Photo / Thinkstock
We may not be space travellers yet, but we have travelled far into the universe to make these discoveries. Photo / Thinkstock

Whenever humanity's baser side seems to be winning, whenever we lose our heads because we can't seem to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, when we're melting down because of being caught out, it's good to remember what amazing things we can do.

For a reminder of that, you need only to have been watching the TV series Cosmos, which finishes its first screening on Sky's National Geographic channel tonight.

It's the perfect occasion to celebrate the fact that, bound to this planet as we are, we have been able to learn so much about things happening so far away that the distance itself is beyond our comprehension.

All this in the short 500 years since Copernicus first worked out the planets probably revolved around the sun.

Most of us know there is some weird stuff going on out there, but the average brain gets about as far as "Wow, that's really big", and hits a wall, unable to comprehend the paradoxes and prodigies that abound throughout the cosmos.

But that hasn't stopped the discoveries.

We know, for instance, that we have seasons only because something about the size of Mars crashed into us a long time ago and tilted Earth on its axis.

We have discovered more than 1000 planets circling other suns and know numerous details about them, such as that there is one where it rains glass sideways.

We know that 58 quadrillion miles away, near the constellation Aquila, there floats a cloud of alcohol that is 1000 times bigger than our solar system's diameter.

And not only do we know exactly how old the universe is, we've seen the instant it came into being in the form of gravitational waves.

We may not be space travellers yet, but we have travelled far into the universe to make these discoveries.

Members of our species have overcome our human limitations, and it's the ability to take what we are born with and make it do more than anyone has done with it before that makes us great.

With our hands, eyes and minds and a few tools that we have made ourselves, we can plumb the farthest reaches of the universe.

The makers of Cosmos could do an equally mind-boggling series at the other end of the scale about that little universe inside our heads: the brain.

Some of our species have made remarkable and useful discoveries about that, too.

So, given we can solve all these questions about things that are so far away, why can't we solve problems closer to home, much simpler ones such as, what would be a good plan for Auckland's waterfront? Why does a society full of hardworking, productive and caring people such as ours allow poverty to fester and leave its weakest members vulnerable to abuse by those who have power over them?

Why are we spending 28 times more on infrastructure for private vehicles than we are for public transport?

One of the reasons science has got so far is that it does its work without much outside interference.

Nobody votes for a theory - it is proved or disproved. People don't ring up talkback and complain that Yann LeCun is barking up the wrong tree in his research on artificial intelligence.

Opinion polls aren't used to find out whether environment can have a direct effect on genes.

Consequently, there is a shortage of politics in science.

Perhaps if there were less politics in politics - which is really just one fellow trying to get his way in preference to another fellow for no better reason than that getting your way feels good - then politicians might achieve remarkable things, too.

- Herald on Sunday

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