Science Reader Question: My Martian Neighbor

mars photo

See? It’s right next door. Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

It’s hard to imagine being more lost than Mark Watney. He was literally the only human being on an entire planet, nearly 250 million miles from home. That’s the premise of The Martian, which details the astronomical lengths NASA and others go to rescue Watney, and his efforts to stay alive until they get there. It’s a gripping story, but I could never fully ignore the fact that a lot of time and money (albeit fictional) was being spent to rescue one person. Mr. Spock would not approve; it’s the antithesis of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

This month, I’ve been considering this question from reader HL:

What I am seeing is that the understandably busy lives of even highly motivated Christian professionals often lead them to become more and more isolated from those parts of society most in need of outreach, friendship, and fellowship from Christians. So…how can those in the hectic years of research, working on getting those final papers done for the PhD, etc., not lose touch with the problems within their own local community?

I initially thought The Martian was a perfect example of the scenario HL wants to avoid. Just about every character is a highly motivated professional forsaking family, community engagement, and sometimes even basic hygiene to solve the most remote problems mankind has ever considered. They all sense this moment is their vocational brass ring, a singular opportunity to transcend a career and become a legend.

As I tried to frame the story as a counterexample for this month’s question, I started thinking about Luke 15 and all of the parables about search missions. There is an extravagance and a single-mindedness to these rescue efforts that’s not altogether dissimilar to The Martian. And all of these parables point to the reality spelled out in Philippians 2, that Jesus put aside more than any of us have ever possessed to come and rescue us. Along the way, he crossed a gulf of sin that makes 250 million miles of the vacuum of space seem like a crack in the pavement.

At the same time, while Jesus was here on earth he worked very locally. He ministered exclusively between Jerusalem and Galilee, never getting more than about 100 miles from his birthplace. He spent a lot of time with the same small group of disciples. It’s tempting to think he could have been more effective if he had gone to Rome or Athens to address throngs of people more connected to the key social networks of the day.

Images of Matt Damon from "Saving Private Ryan", "Interstellar" and "The Martian" with the text "America is spending way too much money retrieving Matt Damon"

Jesus spent even more to retrieve you.

Of course, the fact that I’m writing about Jesus’ ministry thousands of years later and thousands of miles removed also shows that it didn’t stay local, or at least didn’t stay localized. The world was already pretty well connected in those days, and it’s only more connected now. A drought and a civil war in Syria means that refugees with many needs are spreading all over the globe. My own town of Pittsburgh has a growing population of Bhutanese refugees, many of whom were originally displaced over 20 years ago. For that matter, I’m here in America because of the 17th century English refugees we’ll commemorate tomorrow, and various 19th and 20th century developments in Europe that brought my great grandparents here. Given enough time, any problem can become a local one, and any local problem has the potential to spread as long as it is unresolved. Then again, the same could be said about solutions.

If problems and solutions can spread, we probably don’t need to look far to find either. I find myself going back to HL’s question and wondering about its premise a little bit, specifically the part about scholars and highly motivated professionals being “isolated from those parts of society most in need of outreach, friendship, and fellowship from Christians.” Our fellow scholars and professionals are also part of our local community and may have just as great as a need as anyone else for friendship and fellowship. Just this week, I saw two articles about the challenges facing PhD students and adjunct faculty, including financial struggles, strains on relationships, and depression. Those problems may not be unique to academia, but academics do have problems that could benefit from more friends and more fellowship.

That’s not to say the question is completely irrelevant. I think we should all be actively working to make sure our definition of “neighbor” is as inclusive as possible. And there are definitely people who are more on the margins of our personal social groups and of society in general, which means we need to make a disproportionate effort to make them equally included. I’ve talked about some different steps we can take to accomplish that, from being sensitive to any pointers from our fields of study to staying engaged with our local church and our local children. That’s not an exhaustive list; actually, part of my point is that there is no exhaustive list. We should never stop looking for new ways to expand our sense of neighborhood; we should never be satisfied that we have found all our neighbors.

Of course, that’s pretty challenging to do. Let’s face it; we’re all Martians one way or another. I mean, sure, you’re normal, and I’m normal, but people, man, people are weird. It takes a lot of work just to get to know one of them. Once you’ve done that a few times though, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself that the ones you know are reasonable enough and it’s just the rest of them that are aliens best left to their own devices. Yes, there are two kinds of people. But the two kinds are not “people like me” and “inscrutable aliens.” The two kinds are “aliens I know” and “aliens I don’t know yet.” A whole universe of first contacts are waiting just around the corner.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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