Right here, right now

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In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi casually asked the now-famous question, “But where is everybody?” while in a conversation about our vastly silent universe. The question of silence and the absence of detectable “alien” or nonhuman life despite the substantial number of stars, planets, and galaxies became known as the Fermi paradox. The big-picture science magazine Nautilus recently published a story called “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang, the award-winning science fiction writer. It looks at the Fermi paradox a little differently.

Chiang’s story opens with an observation by a highly intelligent (and endangered) grey parrot:

“The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe. But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices? We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?”

To me, Chiang’s story is a soft-spoken ask to return the big scientific imagination to Earth. While more and more future-facing initiatives grab headlines and attention, and pressure us to think skyward, What about Earth? What about valuing and connecting more meaningfully with what we already have, right here, right now?

In that vein, this month’s special optics section focuses on what we are lucky enough to have right here, right now. Across 13 pages, extraordinary individuals are featured — technicians, designers, engineers, and educators — who are capable, committed, accomplished, and imaginative, and who enrich the optics profession. Ulrike Fuchs. Zak Niazi. Jennifer Kruschwitz. Susan Houde-Walter. Katie Schwertz. Anand Asundi. Donn Silberman. Bruce Walker. I hope you will take a few minutes to read about and regard their accomplishments.

Chiang’s grey parrot ends the story like this:

“My species probably won’t be here for much longer; it’s likely that we’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence. But before we go, we are sending a message to humanity. We just hope the telescope at Arecibo will enable them to hear it. The message is this: You be good. I love you.”

Perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm. Right here. Right now.

Published: September 2019

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