I arrived in the United States a couple of decades ago, in Madison, Wisconsin, the seat of one of the great land grant universities. It’s hard to imagine a time when the state encouraged public education, when civic duty and patriotism combined in temples of higher learning. This is the same state where the governer is attempting to kill tenure.
By the time I came to Madison, the era of public education had ended. Signs of disrepair were all over the place, including my paycheck, but the UW system was still awe-inspiring in comparison to my academic mileu in India. For one, the university library was open to the public. Anyone could go in and browse the collections; even borrow books if you had a state ID. The library had every book I could think of; forget mathematics, its collection of Indian language material was better than any library back home. There were no restrictions on the number of books one could check out, no one asking why I was taking the books I had in my hand. Freedom, plain and simple.
I found a one bedroom apartment near the University, the infamous Allen House on University Avenue for those of you who have any knowledge of Madison. My roomate was a clever industrial engineer who commandeered the one bedroom for himself. He had a girlfriend in Kansas, he said; he needed the privacy while talking to her at night. I slept on the living room floor for a year, rolling out a sheet from behind the couch after the roomate had disappeared into his den of privacy, phone line in hand. The space between the couch and the floor was my bookshelf. It was the easiest place for me to store books to read before bed.
Soon, I realized the roomate’s conversations were public; the walls of Allen House weren’t thick enough to contain a whisper, let alone a loudmouthed engineer. That’s when I discovered the TV room downstairs. Star-Trek TNG was on every night from 11:00 PM to midnight. A regular crowd of young nerds gathered around the screen, paying homage to ‘make it so’. Some of them turned out to be fellow mathematicians. Soon we became the best of friends. The path from concrete mathematics to galactic fantasy was an easy road. In fact, the two are more closely related than one might think, for both involve flights of the imagination packaged in technical vehicles.
It was an optimistic time, soon after the unveiling of the iron curtain, before the war on terror and before the widespread understanding of climate collapse. The mathematician across the hallway from me won the Fields medal. The internet was blossoming. String theory was staging one of its regular comebacks. Clinton was president and apart from dropping his trousers in the wrong places, he seemed to have a firm handle on everything.
Fifteen years later, we live in a much more complex and dangerous world. The free internet has been replaced by an all pervasive surveillance cum commodification engine. Millions have been killed and trillions spent on gratuitous wars. Public services are under threat throughout the world because, as we all know, the market knows best. Most importantly, we are increasingly aware that our time on this earth is limited, that without drastic changes in the way we live, there won’t be a planet for us to inhabit.
There are people who think technology is a solution to these challenges. They are even thinking of colonizing space, of making Star Trek real. I don’t deny that the solar system beckons, but we can’t get there without doing something about where we are now. Some of us, perhaps the very richest, might escape to Mars but even they will be tethered to the Earth until we truly learn how to live peacefully and sustainably outside the blue planet. How likely is that?
My intuition says that space is not for us today, that we have to work on ourselves for a while before we unleash the human race on the rest of the universe. It’s time for collective meditation. Only when that tapasya is complete will we be ready for the stars. Our colors have to be green and blue before they become red and white.