Moonshots and Curiosity

President Leebron

David Leebron

Farragut State Park, Idaho, at the 1969 Boy Scout Jamboree. Like so many people, I remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface 50 years ago. This was a remarkable achievement for many reasons, including the technology that needed to be developed and the speed at which it was realized.

President John F. Kennedy set the goal in his famous speech at Rice
Stadium. There are many great lines in the speech, including the general favorite at Rice: “Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” (The last line was handwritten into the text, apparently by Kennedy himself.) We remember his answer: “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” But we often omit what came next: “Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” It was not merely the goal that mattered, but the challenges along the way.

So momentous was the achievement that the term “moonshot” has come to mean an extraordinarily ambitious project that aims to achieve something beyond what many might think possible. In the case of the Kennedy moonshot, what made it so was in part the ambitious timing he set, namely within seven years. This major leap was possible because the project built on existing technologies and developed new technologies, which emerged in part out of the fundamental research that had been undertaken in the decades and even centuries before. That is research not driven by some practical goal or application, but by the human curiosity to understand our world at the very deepest level.

As we continued pushing the boundaries of knowledge in chemistry, physics and earth science, people discovered applications for that knowledge — flight, rockets, computers and new forms of navigation. Without those curiosity-driven discoveries, the original moonshot would simply not have been possible or indeed conceivable. The lesson is simple: If we want to make moonshots, we must continue to invest in fundamental research.

In June, I visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland. I met with a group of Rice scientists led by professors Paul Padley and Karl Ecklund of the physics and astronomy department. Because the accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider, is currently being maintained and upgraded, I was able to descend 100 meters and view the actual machine. It is massive and beautiful, in itself a remarkable human achievement made possible only by international collaboration. The work done at CERN received worldwide attention seven years ago because of the discussion of the previously elusive, but theoretically predicted, Higgs boson, a critical piece of the particle physics model. Rice scientists contributed significantly to that work.

Of what practical importance is that? I’m not sure. But I’m willing to bet that it will ultimately prove useful to humanity, as has every significant scientific discovery. Indeed, this incredible effort, involving thousands of scientists from dozens of nations working across decades, has already benefited humanity. The World Wide Web was invented to solve the information-sharing problem faced by scientists at CERN. Out of the work at CERN also emerged medical technologies such as the PET scan and new therapies for cancer. As Kennedy remarked at Rice, “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

In short, moonshots achieve much more than the goals they set. The very process of achieving such goals and the necessity for innovation produce new knowledge and technologies that make possible new and different moonshots — such as the building of the Large Hadron Collider.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original moonshot, we ought to remember that only through the constant pursuit of knowledge of our world — the fundamental mission of universities — can we continue to make both literal and metaphorical moonshots a reality in the future.

— David W. Leebron