Are We There Yet? Pluto and the Value of Patience

Here’s my favorite fact about the New Horizons flight to Pluto: New Horizons launched at 2 pm on January 19, 2006, and passed the moon at 10:35 pm that same day (which, by the way, was nearly ten times faster than the Apollo 11 mission). It then took nearly nine and a half years to get to Pluto. It’s mind-blowing.

Space exploration, and science in general, easily generate a sense of awe and wonder, especially because our brains aren’t wired to handle the astronomically big or the microscopically small. Yet all scientific endeavors are done by human beings, driven by their own curiosity, values, and excitements.

I was reminded by this when I visited the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, for which I am on the Advisory Board. The goal of the camp is to use science as a way to engender a love for Judaism, and to reach students who might not otherwise connect with their Judaism.

The camp has a collection of values they espouse, and what’s interesting is that they are not specifically Jewish values, and they are not specifically scientific values. They are human values, such as curiosity and discovery, that are framed and lived in a Jewish and a scientific context.

The one value that truly struck me the most as New Horizons traveled to Pluto was patience (savlanut): “In a world of instant gratification, we must recognize that something we build or design may not work right the first or even second time. We must exude patience for ourselves and with our fellow campers, as we explore, learn and work to achieve a common goal.”

Science is the story of failure. It is the story of making a mistake, finding out what went wrong, trying to fix it, and then getting back up again. And that’s a very Jewish value, as well. There is always an opportunity for teshuvah, repentance, to help atone for the mistakes we make with others.

Perhaps even more importantly, patience also helps us place our actions in the context of the those who have come before us, and those who will come after us. We don’t always know how our actions will impact someone days or years down the road, and the ways we teach and raise our children are what create the next generation.

And as physicist Marclo Gleiser wrote for NPR:

The senior scientists working on the New Horizons mission grew up with vivid memories of Apollo’s lunar landings. They followed the lead of the previous Cold War generation by pushing the boundaries of knowledge into the confines of the solar system, creating one of the most meaningful legacies of our generation — a testimony to what we can accomplish as we work together toward a common goal. I wonder what the children watching New Horizons’ flyby will accomplish as they join the ranks of future space explorers. The probes have been there; perhaps now it is our turn.

As we continue to learn more and go farther, let’s remember that patience is a required not only for awe-inspiring scientific discovery. It’s needed in our day-to-day lives, as well. After all, we may sometimes feel that our own contribution to the world is small and insignificant. But if realize that our work is joined by those who have come before and with those who will come after us, then we can truly reach new horizons.

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