"Imagine, for a moment, that we could all live underwater. The oceans are so vast that if we divided them up amongst us -- all 6 billion of us on this planet -- we would each have an ocean-view living room a mile long, a mile wide, and a ceiling 800 feet high."
That's quite a picture, isn't it? It's a picture painted for us recently by one of this country's foremost geophysicists, Dr. Marcia McNutt, who, along with Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the renowned Hayden Planetarium in New York City, joined us in the East Room for the ninth in a series of Millennium Evenings at the White House -- this one actually a matinee entitled "Exploration Under the Sea - Beyond the Stars."
The story of America is the story of exploration. For generations, we have endeavored to understand the unknown and expand the boundaries of our knowledge. From the explorers and seekers who ventured across the ocean to American shores, to the settlers who pushed westward, our history is told in the tales of those who strived to conquer the unknown.
It was in the East Room itself, the very room where we host each of the Millennium Evenings, that Thomas Jefferson and Merriwether Lewis, surrounded by maps and books printed on animal skins, planned the Lewis and Clark expedition. Today, that spirit of courageous endeavor is more alive than ever, taking us no longer over high mountains and raging rivers, but deep into the oceans and out toward the farthest reaches of space.
Why are we driven to the unknown? We strike out into the unknown, setting off for new frontiers, in an effort to conquer the seemingly impossible -- to discover the unimaginable, to find out more about what's out there, and in the process, to find out more about ourselves and what's right here.
Far more eloquently, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote in his "Four Quartets": "We shall never cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
According to scientists, over 90 percent of the world beneath the sea remains uncharted and unseen. Meanwhile, we can only imagine the vast unknowns above, where the latest approximation of the number of stars in the observable universe is sextillion -- that's a one followed by 21 zeros, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
By comparison, the estimated number of stars in our galaxy is a hundred billion -- or a mere 100,000,000,000 -- a number Dr. Tyson describes this way: A hundred billion hamburgers laid end to end would stretch 13 times around the Earth, with a pile left over that would reach the moon and back.
Such dramatic examples assure us there are vast reaches of our oceans and our universe yet to be discovered -- reaches that could hold clues to the origins of life on Earth (or Mars), cures for human diseases, and answers to the sustainable use of our oceans.
As a child in the Bronx, N.Y., where he remembers counting about 14 stars, Dr. Tyson's first introduction to the glories of the night sky was at the Hayden Planetarium. From the moment the lights dimmed and the sky was filled with thousands of stars, he knew his destiny would take him on a journey into space. Today, although new tools allow us to see beyond the stars, he reminds us that we are driven to explore by more than simply wondering what's on the other side of the mountain or even on the bottom of the ocean.
He goes on to explain we are driven by the same forces that have led civilizations across cultures and across time to look up and ask, "Where did we come from? How did it all begin? How will it all end? And perhaps the most important question of them all: What is our place in the universe?"
This week, as we celebrate America's 224th birthday -- the first July Fourth of a new century and a new millennium -- it is fitting to look back proudly on our grand adventures and ponder our great discoveries. While we may marvel at each breakthrough that pushes us to new questions and alters our understanding of our place in the universe, we must also heed Dr. Tyson's deceptively simple reminder: "Mars was probably once a paradise." It is up to us to harness our newfound insights in order to save Earth from the same fate -- "just another casualty in the solar system."
Despite her enthusiasm for the deep, Dr. McNutt concurs, concluding her remarks by pointing out that, for the moment at least, humankind's only known habitat is planet Earth. Echoing the theme of the White House Millennium celebration, "Honor the Past - Imagine the Future," she cautions, "We must learn from our past. We must protect our future."
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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