The humor of Douglas Adams, the British author and satirist beloved for his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” series invokes humility and opens a discourse on humanity and Earth’s relative place in the universe.
It has been almost three decades since the Hubble telescope launched into orbit 370 miles above Earth, allowing scientists to observe the universe 12 billion years into the past, almost up to the ultimate beginning of “life, the universe, and everything”—13.8 billion years ago, the Big Bang.
As science approaches a new decade, The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an infrared telescope with much greater capabilities than the Hubble, is scheduled to launch aboard the Ariane 5 rocket in October 2018. Named for a former NASA administrator, this telescope will help astronomers study every phase of the universe’s history, from capturing the first light after the Big Bang, to observing the evolution of solar systems such as the Milky Way. Observing the universe and expanding our knowledge of space allows us to better understand the Earth and our lives on it.
According to NASA, the “exploration of the universe, and that of other nations, reveals humanity’s place in nature in the broadest possible sense.” However, accomplishing this remote exploration is a daunting task. So how does one grasp the sheer size of the cosmos, and what drives scientists to tackle these big questions? For some, the inspiration is science fiction.
Science fiction, as defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a form of fiction that deals principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals,” and in doing so helps open human consciousness to the vast expanse of a multidimensional space in a different way than non-fictional approaches. Although deeply entrenched in science and technology, the realm of sci-fi allows for fantastical extrapolation of what could be or could have been, exposing readers to entire new paradigms of thought that explore the socio-political and metaphysical dimensions of humanity, even impacting the work of prominent scientists.
“When I was a kid … I used to always watch Flash Gordon on Saturday mornings. I was hooked. I mean, rocket ships, ray guns, aliens from outer space; that’s for me” Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and author, told the Discovery Channel.
“Years later,” Kaku continued, “I began to realize that the two passions of my life — that is, physics and understanding the future are really the same thing — that if you understand the foundations of physics, you understand what is possible and you understand what could be just beyond the horizon.”
One science fiction writer who influenced perceptions of the universe and interest in the satellites and telescopes that help us understand it is Douglas Adams. Adams was an English author who lived from 1952-2001. As a scriptwriter and satirist, Adams brought humor to science through his series of five books, “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” creating a satirical rumination of human purpose, place in the universe, and our conceptualization of life.
“Space is big. Really, really big,” Adams wrote in his first novel the series. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space,”
And although the scale of space may seem may seem obvious, by drawing attention to its size Adams minimizes human significance in the universe, placing us “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy … an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Placing Earth in this perspective early in his series challenges humans’ Earth-centric lens and sets a framework for what to expect from Adam’s writing.
So what does Adams’ self-deprecating and sometimes pessimistic humor achieve? It helps normalize the fantastical and open the consciousness of his readers to new possibilities, to the idea that we are small and the universe is vast.
Through the medium of science fiction, Adams used humor to challenge humans to reconsider our place evolutionarily, and in doing so invited scientists to expand the exploration of humanity’s place in nature beyond the one-dimensional and linear perspectives of life. As a reader, the critical take-home from Adams was “all you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it’s pretty damn complicated in the first place.”
With the same sense of humor, Adams deconstructed the illusion of human grandeur and self-entitlement in the scope of the universal with anecdotal comedy. “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.” This deconstructions of human ego is important because it encourages a re-evaluation of human progress, and as a young scientists, humility and reflection aids in innovation.
Another humbling idea introduced through Adams’ writing is the concept that his envisioned universe is circular and without purpose. Many characters, from Marvin, the depressed robot, to Slartibartfast, the Magrathean planet designer, accept this concept. The only character that often resists this “universal truth” is Arthur Dent, the ape-descendant. And it seems natural that a human would have a difficult time conceptualizing this reality, because human history and civilization is the result of purpose seeking and progress pushing. Yet, progress is a concept that can only exists if time is linear, and that, we know, is not the reality.
This descent from a meaningful to a meaningless universe is not meant as an attack on self-worth, but rather an opportunity to reframe scientific and social progress and allow superficial concerns of self-realization and glory to fall away.
Humility in research and the acknowledgment that we essentially have a limited and narrow understanding of it opens the mind to new possibilities, aiding in the conceptualization of the vastness of the universe. So is research and inquiry useless? Not by any means. The effect of Adam’s dark satire is that it reframes our location in the universe and refocuses thought on this “entire multidimensional infinity,” opening the consciousness of his readers to new possibilities, to the idea that we are small, the universe is vast, expanding the directions of inquiry into the infinite.
Helen Maynard-Casely, a planetary scientist with the Australian Nuclear Science and Rechnology Organisation (ANSTO), remembers the first time she heard the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” radio series:
“When your job does sometimes actually entail reversing the polarity of a neutron flow, you need to look to an even crazier fiction world for your escapism,” Maynard-Casely said in an interview with The Conversation. For her, “The genius (and I do not use that word lightly) of Douglas Adams’ writing is that the loopy concepts of the book are presented with a thin veneer of ‘scienceness’, enough to make the fantastical concepts that little more believable. Then he ‘normalizes’ it all.”
Science fiction impacts science, not necessarily by introducing possible technological designs or scientific probabilities, but through exploring the improbable it inspires fantastical extrapolation in budding scientists like young Drs. Kaku and Maynard-Casely, providing new perspectives of and curiosity for the vastness of the universe. And in less than a year, NASA scientists anticipate that the innovative technology of the JWST will satiate some of their curiosity by allowing for further exploration of this vastness. As John Mather, astrophysicist and senior project scientist for the telescope, said “We’ve done two decades of innovation and hard work, and this is the result — we’re opening up a whole new territory of astronomy.”
Kayla Townsley is an undergraduate at Portland State University, majoring in molecular biology.