Bored in Space

Bored In Space

“With each successive mission, space exploration becomes a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom,” writes Mary Roach in Packing for Mars. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and that means that we adjust to extraordinary circumstances and accept them as normal once they have been part of our lives for a long enough period of time. In Packing for Mars Roach explains that this has happened with space travel. Riding a massively explosive rocket outside the earths atmosphere and living in a confined space beyond the protective shell of the Earth is an incredible achievement for all of humanity. And it is also routine and hardly thought about by most people. In some ways it is inspiring that space travel is hardly inspiring. It means we have succeeded beyond a level any human could have imagined just a couple hundred years ago. It is also, however, somewhat depressing. It means we don’t recognize just how far our technological innovations have taken us, and we don’t always appreciate just how much we have learned and done through scientific exploration.
Today is an interesting time to be thinking about human adaptability, unprecedented times that become normal and routine, and major discoveries that could reshape our world. We have been dealing with a global pandemic that many of us have simply accepted at this point in time. Many of us just want to ignore it and move on with our lives. We have adapted to the risks of COVID-19, maybe modified our behaviors and life patterns a little bit, and we barely think about the number of cases and deaths from the disease each day. Early in the pandemic I spent an unreasonable amount of time looking at case statistics, charts, and trend lines of what was happening with the virus. Now, with two vaccine doses under my belt (or in my arm) I hardly think about case counts, even though I am aware of breakthrough infections and rising deaths across the country. I have simply adapted and the story of COVID-19 as normal and sometimes boring. I know I am not the only one in this boat, and that is part of why the pandemic hasn’t ended.
The pandemic also brought us breakthroughs with MRNA vaccines in the last year, a big scientific step forward in fighting diseases and developing vaccines for many diseases in the future. This was the key to returning the world to some sort of normalcy and vaccine news was huge for a few months, but now my sense is that many of us expect to get a booster shot, but that it barely registers in our day to day thinking. Vaccines, just as space travel, are amazing, but routine and boring (at least for the 49.6% of Americans who are vaccinated according to the CDC on 8/28/2021).
I think it is important that we be aware of how adaptable we are as human beings. Just as we get used to the idea of people living on space stations and vaccines being developed for deadly diseases, we adapt to our spouses and partners who were once the most exciting sparks in our lives. We adapt to the houses we live in, the cars we  drive, the restaurants we eat at, and everything that becomes a  normal part of our routines. We become bored living lives that our ancestors could only dream of. We fail to appreciate how wonderful some of the relationships in our lives are, we stop being thankful for the nice things we live with, and we become bored with miracle innovations like safe drinking water. When we don’t appreciate these things we don’t give them the attention they deserve, and things can break down and atrophy, only to remind us of how fortunate we were to have that thing. We should pause and think about how amazing our lives may be (recognizing that many of us have serious challenges to overcome in our lives), and we should try to be amazed by even the simple things we have come to take for granted. We are incredibly adaptable and that can help us survive in extreme circumstances, but it can also mean that we fail to appreciate the small miracles that make our lives worth living.

Exploring Humanity by Exploring Space

In her book Packing for Mars Mary Roach writes, “space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much normalcy can people forgo? For how long, and what does it do to them?”
I really like this quote. When I typically think about exploring what it means to be human I think about current art and pop culture, about ancient human societies and the art and culture of those societies, and about our relationships and connections. I don’t often think about the cold vacuum of space, of planets beyond the earth, or of gravitational waves. But Roach suggests that we can learn a lot about humanity by studying the ways in which we have studied extreme cosmic phenomenon and explored those places where our bodies were never meant to be. By studying humans in such environments, by looking at the innovations that keep us alive in space, and by examining our search for the secrets of the universe, something deep and meaningful about humanity is revealed.
Roach is famous for exploring the parts of the world that we would rather not think about. There are countless innovations and discoveries that make life easier for all of us, but that we would rather not think about. Roach, however, is not afraid to look at dirty, messy, and sometimes disgusting science directly, all in an attempt to better understand our humanity. It turns out that space exploration is a perfect area of study for someone like Mary Roach. It also turns out that we can learn a lot about who we are, about the things we need, the luxuries we could live without, and how our societies operate when we study space and the efforts that go into keeping people alive and comfortable in space.
Humans did not evolve to live in space, and keeping someone alive on a space station or flying on a space shuttle requires that we truly know what it means to be human. It means we have to think about the mind, the body, our basic needs, and beyond. What does it mean to live on a diet of food designed to be highly digestible to leave the fewest possible waste products at end? What does it mean to be in a confined space for long periods of time? And what is it like thinking about these problems and how to solve them? The answer to each of these questions teaches us more about ourselves. By looking up, by striving to move away from the planet, and by putting ourselves in places we never belonged we learn more about ourselves, our societies, and our shared humanity. Space teaches us about ourselves, even if that wasn’t the goal when we set out to explore the stars.
Superhero Cadavers

Superhero Cadavers

[Author Note: This begins a short three post break in writing regarding homelessness for a few quotes and thoughts on books by Mary Roach. More to come from Roach after finishing some additional writing on homelessness and poverty.]
Mary Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is an exploration into what happens to bodies donated for scientific research. In the book she meets with scientists, researchers, and academics who are working with human cadavers to make life better for those of us who are still living. It is a witty, humorous, yet altogether respectful exploration of the ways in which the human body has helped propel our species forward, even after the human life within the body has expired.
Regarding cadavers and what they have unlocked through sometimes gory (though today as considerate and respectful as possible) experiments, Roach writes the following:
“Cadavers are our superheroes: They brave fire without flinching, withstand falls from tall buildings and head-on car crashes into walls. You can fire a gun at them or run a speedboat over their legs, and it will not faze them. Their heads can be removed with no deleterious effect. They can be in six places at once. I take the Superman point of view: What a shame to waste these powers, to not use them for the betterment of humankind.”
The scientific study of cadavers can be off-putting, but it has been incredibly valuable for humanity across the globe. Cadavers have helped us understand basic anatomy, design safer cars, and ensure the safety of astronauts. Without cadavers many more people would have died in ill devised medical experiments and car crashes, and numerous live animals would have suffered as alternative test subjects. Cadavers perform miraculous jobs that living humans cannot perform, and for their service and sacrifices, we should all be grateful.
Learning and Exploratory Nudges - Joe Abittan

Learning and Exploratory Nudges

So far, a lot of the nudges I have written about assume that there is a known best option for an individual and that a choice architect can help direct people toward that best option. In situations like retirements savings, healthcare benefits selection, and other complicated, structured, and somewhat formulaic choice scenarios, it is relatively easy to take a rational approach to use nudges to help people select an option that will be a good choice for them. But nudges don’t have to direct people toward an already known option. Nudges can be more exploratory in nature and directed toward learning.


In some situations, write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge, “it’s good to nudge people in directions that they might not have specifically chosen in advance. Structuring choice sometimes means helping people to learn, so they can later make better choices on their own.”


Helping people learn can be better than always trying to give people the right answer. Libertarian paternalism accepts that choice architects don’t know everything about another person’s preferences or self-interest, but assumes someone can generally know the right direction to point other people in. Using nudges to provide more feedback, encourage people to consider appropriate information, and help people better sort through their options can help people understand how to think and approach similar choices. When the goal of a choice architect is to maintain a maximal choice level while providing people with valuable information and alternatives, nudges that encourage learning are incredibly useful.


Additionally, nudges that encourage more exploration are helpful for people when it comes to things like listening to music or dining out. Nudges can direct people back toward things they already like, but they can also direct people toward new things that similar people like. Many algorithms on Amazon, music streaming services, and clothing subscription services work in these ways. While they are ultimately designed to keep you engaged or convince you to buy something else, they do employ exploratory nudges to help people find new likes. A company could continue suggesting you buy the same pair of shoes, but they might be able to get you to buy another pair if they show you one that other people also like. Helping people explore new genres of music, new authors, and new styles of clothes can provide real value to the individual, beyond the value to the company in convincing someone to buy something new. The individual still learns if they get feedback from their exploratory choices and gain new insight into finding new alternatives.

Life in the Ocean

James Nestor wrote the book, Deep: Free Diving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, after traveling to the Mediterranean to watch a free diving competition.  Prior to the competition he was a certified scuba diver, but it was not until he learned about how the human body reacts to the depths of the ocean without scuba gear that Nestor really began to understand the importance of the ocean.  He did not just study free diving and human physiology in the water, but he worked to understand all aspects of life in the ocean. Nestor writes, “The ocean occupies 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and is home to about 50 percent of its known creatures — the largest inhabited area found anywhere in the universe so far.”


I love learning about how large, deep, and diversified our oceans are.  I live in Reno, NV, in one of the only places on Earth that does not have a river that eventually makes its way to the ocean.  Our high desert climate is about as far from the ocean as one can be, which perhaps is why I am so fascinated with the life in water.  Learning about the varied life in the ocean fascinates me because we have only studied the ocean to a very limited extent, and in many ways the deep ocean can be compared to outer space in terms of how difficult it is to reach and the extent to which it has been explored and understood.


In Nestor’s quote he writes that the ocean is home to about 50 percent of Earth’s species, and what I find interesting is that many marine biologists believe that we do not know all of the creatures and life forms living in the ocean.  We have truly only explored a small percent of the ocean, and there are many more living organisms to be discovered in the vast depths of the worlds oceans.


For me, thinking about the ocean in this way forces me to think about human relationships with the ocean.  Many of our relationships are not positive, through history we have not done a good job thinking about ocean health.  It is easy for our trash to accumulate in watersheds that drain into the oceans, and oil shipping and exploration have had many negative consequences for ocean life.  In addition, we have inhabited huge areas, typically bays and estuaries, along our coastlines and reduced the habitat for many marine species.  While human societies should not be constantly limited in order to save animal species, thinking about how we can live in a state of harmony with oceans and marine life is not just a nice thing to do, it is a necessary responsibility of all humans.

Our Connection to the Ocean

In his book Deep, James Nestor describes how he became passionate about the oceans, marine life, and our connections to the water as humans.  When he began his research of free diving and started to study marine mammals and our resemblance to marine life, he was surprised. Nestor wrote, “We’re born of the ocean.  Each of us begins life floating in amniotic fluid that has almost the same makeup as ocean water.” Nestor begins with human life as a fetus comparing human embryonic development to that of fish.  “Our earliest characteristics are fishlike.  The month-old embryo grows fins first, not feet.”  As he continues, Nestor spends a lot of time discussing the similarities in our development to that of marine mammals and marine life to show that somewhere in our human past we began life in the ocean, and evolved from life in the ocean.  His position is strengthened when he compares the chemical composition of human blood to sea water, noting the similarities of our blood PH, and he continues the comparison by examining what many call “The Master Switch of Life”, or the mammalian dive reflex.


Nestor first encountered the mammalian dive reflex when he watched a group of people exploit our amphibious reflexes to dive to depths of nearly 300 feet in a free diving competition in the Mediterranean.  He was amazed by the capacities of the human body to adjust in water and accomplish things that seemed impossible below the surface, but he was abhorred by the competition aspect of free diving that pushed people beyond their limits and often left competitors bloody and semiconscious.


Throughout his book Nestor continually refers back to the idea of human closeness to the ocean. By describing our developmental similarities and evolutional ties to marine life in the quote above, he sets a foundation for the rest of his book that shows how natural free diving and unassisted human exploration of the ocean can be.  He rejects the competition aspect of free diving because it leaves the competitor at a point where they no longer focus on the ocean and their connection to it, but rather push through the water ignoring all senses until they reach a desired depth.  For Nestor, understanding our connection to the ocean means understanding human beings and life in a more intimate way.  Seeing ourselves as evolutionarily bound to the ocean allows him to paint a new picture of the oceans importance for us, and became truly captivating for Nestor who had previously never given the ocean a second thought.

Avoiding Self-Centeredness

“Don’t be self-centered.  The world is much bigger and much more interesting than you are.  If you spend your time thinking g about yourself, you forego most of what exists.”
The quote above is from Mark Helprin in the book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two. James Harmon, the book’s author, solicited advice from independent film stars, writers, philosophers, and creative individuals, avoiding seeking the advice of celebrities and people who we might decide are highly successful based on their bank account.
I love this quote because it speaks to our position in a world that is full of interesting people and amazing places.  For me it is easy to get settled into a routine where I focus on what I am doing on a day to day basis, and I begin to get stuck in a rut.  What Helprin’s quote is urging us to do is to look out into the world and constantly explore, even if that means we are just reading, listening to podcasts, and exploring what others are doing and thinking.
Helprin’s quote tells us that our lives will be much more fulfilling if we can focus on others and see the world objectively rather than constantly worrying about ourselves and fixating on our personal being.  Worrying about our problems, feeling pity for our selves for our situation, complaining about our work, or feeling bored and stuck in a rut comes about when we close ourselves to the outside world.  When we put others first, focus on meeting new people, and can find a way to be grateful for the opportunities we have, then our lives begin to become more meaningful.  By interacting with others and focusing on them, their interests,  and trying to discover more about the world we see our place in the world with a more positive light, and we can become excited about what is going on around us.


For his book Take My Advice, James Harmon collected letters from creative professionals who had carved our an independent career through art, writing, music, and other crafts. Alphonso Lingis is one of the creatives who sent Harmon a letter with advice on living life.  One sentence from Lingis’ letter reads, “The ecstasy of going into the ocean, into the skies, into the rock core of the earth, into the ice is a pleasure radically different from the contentment that simmers over possessions.”
I really enjoy this quote but in my own life I fall drastically short of actually living it.  I am terrible at traveling, and while I do spend a lot of time out doors hiking, running, and cycling, I have trouble stepping away from possessions and work to enjoy exploring new places.  I truly do wish that I was better at planning vacations and escaping from the world I know, in order to explore new cities, majestic oceans, or different cultures.
What Lingis is saying in this quote is that if someone wants to know reality, they need to step away from their possessions, and give up a dream of making money to have more things.  Reality, in Lingis’ views, is the adventure of life that includes meeting new people and cultures, challenging our body’s limits and posture, and experiencing great joys, pains, laughter, and tears.  Trips into nature pull people away from the isolation of the city to connect them with the planet, and with people who live simply.  The bank of memories that one will gain, Lingis says is greater than the monetary and material possessions that one obtains through a life of work and societal demands.  For Lingis this bank of memories creates a special place of contentment within the soul, and allows the body to rest, while careers and material drives keep us wanting for more, and leave us in a place where we cannot be happy with what we have.