Ben Goertz

Into the Unknown

Some of the teachers at our school have a quote in their email signatures that I love:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Beyond the Known” uses its quick 300 pages to launch a bright flare across the imagination. There are lots of potential flaws in attempting to summarize all of (recorded) history into a popular book, but part of the magic of distilling and lining up events through the lens of exploration is the amazing comparisons across time - all of human history on Earth. Until reading this (and some of Jared Diamond’s chapter on Easter Island in Collapse) I don’t remember learning about how the Polynesians explored the distant islands scattered around the vast oceans but now I’m completely amazed! What would it have been like to explore a totally unknown ocean?

If a future civilization were judging our accomplishments by, say, deciphering the characters on the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, they might never imagine that we'd traveled to the Moon. We can definitively recount some exploits of ancient people and guess about others, but we can never know with certainty the full magnitude of their achievements.

Andrew Rader’s goal with the book is I think a lot like teaching people to long for the sea: he briefly covers generation after generation setting out towards goals deemed next to impossible and then towards the end of the book points up at the open sea of space that’s calling us. I’m a sucker for that siren song. During Perseverance’s landing on Mars the other day I had to contain myself while driving when the livestream I was listening to started roaring through the stereo as everyone at mission control cheered. We have so much to learn about everything around us.

Like Columbus, Magellan continued to massively underestimate the size of the world. In his imagination, the world's largest ocean shrank to a few days' sailing. Thus, two of the greatest explorations in history were grounded in profound ignorance.

There are lots of books arguing for sending humans to Mars, but the strength of this book is the broader appeal to all exploration. I don’t share his gushing optimism for a future where exploration resolves all our collective ills, but it is a wonderful shared purpose to rally behind. Sections of his futuristic utopia echo Sagan’s positivity which is good company to join.

Each chapter is short, potentially bordering near Wikipedia summary length sometimes, but the great thing is all the ideas and related books that reading this has sparked for me. My concurrent (and slow moving) cruise through related books is a recent habit but I’m following up from “Beyond the Known” with a long list:

A few more books will likely wander onto the list as I keep following the trail of interesting ideas and stories. If you have any suggestions or recommendations please share them with me!