Thursday night I journeyed through the Universe. I was in the Hadyen Planetarium, gazing at the stars, surrounded by some of the top tech startup and media outlet folk. Our guide was not Whoopi Goldberg, but Carter Emmart, director of Astrovisualization at American Museum of Natural History. Like a double-decker tour guide of the cosmos, he pointed out all the main local attractions. We met up with the International Space Station above California, saw the many brightest satellites revolving around the Earth, dove into Tycho crater on the moon, and saw Mars’ volcanoes and valleys. The resolution was mind-boggling, especially when he magnified the view to a meter’s length on the moon. From there, Emmart moved out to all the known exoplanets, the edge of the Milky Way, the galaxy clusters, until he came upon the microwave radiation at the edge of the unknown. All the while he commented on the accuracy of the data, how it was collected, the atmosphere, terrain, and its history. The entire ‘trip’ had been unscripted: he just spontaneously guided us through space using a simple computer mouse!
We were all gathered here to celebrate discovery. The media websites Gizmodo and io9 hosted this event, First Comes the Dream, which highlighted inspiration and discovery in both the tech and science communities. It was meant to kick off the Gizmodo series What Was It?, where scientists and tech entrepreneurs are asked about what inspired them when they were younger. Nick Denton, the founder of Gizmodo and Gawker who planned the event, wrote on his website that he believes dreaming about the possibilities of the future and innovation are inextricably linked and wanted to promote this in our culture.
The speakers that night were just as moving as our celestial journey. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke about the new Space Shuttle Pavilion on the pier as well as looking for life under Martian soil. Deputy Mayor Robert Steel emphasized the diversity and innovation of the tech community in NYC, along with Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign to make NYC a flourishing science and tech center. Later we received an address from Mayor Bloomberg himself (in video), before the live interview between io9 editor Annalee Newitz and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Everything took on a personal tone, with each participant drawing upon his own upbringing and perspective. Bolden mentioned that he always believed that one day people will step foot on Mars, Tyson said that he was star-struck the first time he visited the Hayden Planetarium, and Nick Denton said that he’d been inspired by reading Isaac Asimov as a child.
Inspiration is sometimes overlooked when people become so focused on results. However, motivation is important, as the vision, driving point, and human element to our actions. I was curious about what the individuals in the audience’s inspirations were, especially those from the tech startup scene. After all I knew that tech and science build off of each other. Scientists and science communicators use social media to reach an ever-broadening audience and to openly discuss current issues in the scientific community, such as the arsenic life forms debate and the EU’s science campaign fail. On the other hand, Denton Ebel, Curator of Meteorites at AMNH, said it the best when he told me: ”The Internet would not have existed without science.” However, what about motivations? Does science and tech coincide there as well?
The first person I asked, an ex-entrepreneur who sat next to me in the Planetarium, said yes: “Every startup is a science experiment. You pick a hypothesis and test it out. I loved science fairs as a kid and even went to space camp. Became an entrepreneur when I was older.”
After the planetarium show, I came across Richard Mintz, executive manager at the social marketing and digital media agency Blue State Digital, who told me his inspiration: “Scientists try to fill gaps in our knowledge and experience. Tech does the same; it tries to fill gaps for people. I like tech because I like problem solving. Science does the same; it expands our reach with the tools we have.”
Meredith, the founder and CEO of the tech startup uBeam, told me that ever since 5th grade, when her grandfather taught her about black holes, she has been passionate about science. “I am fascinated by what we don’t know or understand. The more I learned, the crazier the universe seemed. I tried to learn as much as I could about it. And the more I learned, the less I knew — until I came to a realization during my first year of college that we know nothing about everything. We can only see patterns and make connections — we don’t have a deep understanding of why anything exists at all."
Chris who works at Shelby TV told me that even the presence of the scientific community is inspiring: “Science and tech definitely work together. I love being around a community of builders and tinkerers to build the future.”
Phil, a Google programmer told me how he used to be into astronomy as a kid. “I loved science. The reality of the universe is amazing. I love computers; you make them do what you want. But computers do what you tell them to do, not what you want them to do, no wiggle room. In science it’s the same way: what you observe and test is what you have.”
Being inspired is not an end in and of itself though. One needs to use that inspiration to create and influence others to be inspired as well. Downstairs from the Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who said that what kept him motivated was the actual pace of discovery, described the Museum of Natural History as “a house of learning and a house of science. We keep you in the know of what we’re doing, and what’s to come. Everything here is brought to life. It’s a story that connects, not cabinets of curiosity.” He added that science inspiration needs to be more a part of the culture, like it was during the Apollo missions: “When everyone joins in, it becomes a statement about what your culture can do. The stuff going on in space in the 60’s filtered down to everybody. When you think about tomorrow, we make tomorrow. It’s the culture I grew up in.”
Afterwards, the crowd gathered upstairs on the terrace to continue the conversation. I spoke with Denton Ebel, who also sees scientific innovation as a collective effort. He believes that inspiration happens both from person to person, and by leaders in the government. With regard to spaceflight, he said that even though it’s up to the government to sustain these technological advancements, he sees entrepreneurs like Elon Musk as an essential part of the equation. They have what he termed, the “lightning strike,” capable of implementing their own visions without the caution that pervades the public sector. He hoped that some people in the audience tonight would become billionaires and eventually use their inspiration of this scientific era to catalyze innovation for the future.