The Biggest Physical Risk of Exploration Today Is Carpal Tunnel

What's to come?
Sept. 23 2013 9:14 AM

The Biggest Physical Risk of Exploration Today Is Carpal Tunnel

Has technology replaced the thrill of adventure?

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module (LM) "Eagle" during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity (EVA). Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this photograph.
Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin walks on the surface of the moon near the leg of the Lunar Module "Eagle." Neil Armstrong, commander, took this photograph.

Courtesy of NASA

We’ve been to the moon and just about everywhere on Earth. So what’s left to discover? In September, Future Tense is publishing a series of articles in response to the question, “Is exploration dead?” Read more about modern-day exploration of the sea, space, land, and more unexpected areas.

“What an inconceivable experience it is to attain one’s ideal and, at the very same moment, to fulfill oneself. I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt happiness like this—so intense and yet so pure. That brown rock, the highest of them all, that ridge of ice—were these the goals of a lifetime? Or were they, rather, the limits of man’s pride?”

                                                                        - Maurice Herzog, 1952

When Maurice Herzog wrote these words, he was recalling his historic ascent of Nepal’s Annapurna—the first time anyone had stood more than 8,000 meters above sea level. On the summit, gasping for air, Herzog was testing the limits of strength and endurance, and bringing vast regions of the high Himalaya into the realm of human knowledge. He was tired, wind-whipped, oxygen-starved, but clearly exhilarated. After all, he was exploring.

Advertisement

Such was the reality of pre-21st-century exploration. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, this life-risking blitz of derring-do, but it was the only way to grasp at the outer edge of the known world, to try and make sense of the universe through knowledge acquisition.

But as humanity’s technical prowess gained on our insatiable curiosity, something strange happened. It was no longer necessary to go places, dragging our corporal beings around, with their demands for oxygen, water, and an inconsiderately narrow temperature range. Instead, we could send robots to do the work, beaming back streams of 1s and 0s, seeing new vistas for us, enduring environmental hazards without complaint. And the digital spoils have been stunning: The Kepler spacecraft discovered more than 3,500 putative new worlds in four years. The Hubble Space Telescope peered 12 billion years back in time to the early stages of the universe. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can spot rocks the size of a dinner plate on the surface of the Red Planet.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple, on the mission's 57th Martian day, or sol (Oct. 3, 2012).
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity cut a wheel scuff mark into a wind-formed ripple at the "Rocknest" site to give researchers a better opportunity to examine the particle-size distribution of the material forming the ripple, on Oct. 3, 2012.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Exploration is, most certainly, not dead. On the contrary, more of the universe is open for our perusal than ever before, and the data deluge only continues to grow, a veritable Moore’s Law of curiosity-driven knowledge.

But is this modern, screen-mediated form of exploration recognizable as the same enterprise that led our ancestors to the ends of the Earth with poetry on their lips?

Historically, our first knowledge of a place (What plants grow here? Is there gold? Any savages in need of salvation?) has been coincident with our first feeling of it (Why does the light look different here? Why is it so hard to breathe at this altitude? Are these blood-sucking insects bad?), intimately linked with a humanistic, highly personalized quest for self-realization (What has my suffering taught me about the human condition? What are the limits of my abilities?). This cocktail of intellectual, sensory, and emotional discovery infused the ventures with an intoxicating blend of novelty: This was life at its most essential, a distillation of our caveman roots and hardwired wanderlust.

But the future of exploration will be different: From here on out, our first experiences of new places will be virtual, not physical. By the time the first person walks on Mars, we will know every pebble of the landing site. The subsurface contours of new caves may be mapped by ground-penetrating radar or acoustic backscatter. New oceanographic environments will first be seen through the cameras of a remotely operated vehicle, as scientists watch from a shipping container on a boat. 

We’ve entered a fundamentally new realm of exploration, one that divorces the intellectual jolt of new knowledge from the visceral thrill and personal fulfillment of self-transportation to new places.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment

Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister

Damned Spot

Now Stare. Don’t Stop.

The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful.
  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Education
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 2:56 PM How Faithful Is David Fincher’s Gone Girl?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 2:38 PM Scientists Use Electrical Impulses to Help Paralyzed Rats Walk Again
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.