2014 [Updated]

I came across something Carl Sagan wrote in January 1970: That “1970″ looked to him like “the future.” So it is that 2014 is a bit jangling at first glance: It seems like a big number. Can it really be 2014? It seems very 21st Century, and surprisingly far from the millennium. This is going to take some getting used to.

We’re now a century removed from the beginning of the War to End War, which, of course, didn’t. Wasn’t it the Archduke Ferdinand who was assassinated in Prague to get that going? Someone remind me what that was all about. (One wonders why there aren’t as many archdukes these days.) (Franz Ferdinand — isn’t that a band???)

Time to go to the bookshelf. A century ago, Henry James and H.G. Wells (who came up with that “war to end war” riff as you know) were arguing over the nature of art and literature. I believe the literary historians think James got the better of the argument (here’s a piece that goes into some detail on what exactly they were fussing about).

In 1914, humans could fly, but I don’t think anyone yet imagined commercial intercontinental flight, much less discounted, low-budget, food-less AirTran-type flight.  Radio existed as a form of wireless telegraphy, but there were no radio stations yet, certainly no music on the radio. The Model T was popular, and by 1914 I think they may have decided to add doors and fancy accessories like that.

And yet surely these people in their funny clothes and with their strange hairstyles felt that they were in the modern world, a world that was changing rapidly, and entering what would surely be the most important era in world history. They no doubt felt themselves hurtling into the future, toward singularities beyond which nothing could be discerned. And they were right, as it turned out: The period from 1914 to the end of WW2 was extraordinarily violent, and changed the planet forever.

But change is a constant. We never live in a static world. I’m not sure that 2014 will be more or less significant than any other year in recent history. Nor do we live any more in “the future” than did the people of the 14th century, or the 8th.

Even those of us who fully embrace the Copernican Principle that covers our position in space may succumb to the notion that we are in a privileged, central point in time. We’re not. Just ask the inhabitants of 2114 — they’ll set you straight.

Tomorrow I’ll be on the Diane Rehm show, talking about space on a panel that will include Lori Garver, former deputy administrator at NASA, and Scott Pace, head of the GWU Space Policy Institute and a former NASA official in the Bush years. Should be lively. Here’s the link to the show. Here’s a link to “Destination Unknown,” our recent series of stories on NASA and space exploration.

[Update: Perhaps the most interesting and significant moment on the show came when Garver, pressed by Rehm on what she would cut if she had to trim the NASA budget, said she'd cut the Mars 2020 rover (a Curiosity duplicate) and, more importantly, the SLS rocket. Pace said that you'd need an SLS type heavy-lift rocket to go to Mars, but Garver said it was based on shuttle technology and if you went to Mars in the 2030s you wouldn't do it with designs that were 50 years old (I will check the transcript later to see if I have remembered this correctly). I'm not sure how newsy it is that a former NASA official doesn't like SLS, but Garver is a potential political appointee in a Hillary Rodham Clinton administration. She has said -- as quoted in my most recent NASA story -- that it was a mistake for Congress to insist on going forward with SLS/Orion while continuing to ask NASA to do everything else, but today she made a stronger statement on the radio show. She'd kill the rocket. Some senators would protest, of course, so who knows how that would play out.]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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