The Ocean vs. Outer Space

by by Katie Okamoto

Badass. That’s the ocean. Everything about it—its direct beauty, its intense and original perfume, its physical and spiritual power to move, the way it crashes and cradles, its unbridled sexiness—so far exceeds the qualities of outer space as to render this writing unnecessary. Still, I will argue my case because wayward and misguided individuals have inexplicably elevated outer space’s dubious qualities above the profound pre-eminence of the marine realm. Such misplaced admiration is dangerous the way all undeserved admiration is dangerous to what is morally, philosphically, aesthetically, and physically better.

I will not insult my opponent here by asking, as some would, what proof he has that outer space actually exists. Let us be gentlemen and ladies and allow that both space and sea are necessary to earthly life—outer space by providing the conditions for the sea’s genesis; the sea for birthing all living ancestors who would one day sense and think and become tragically confused enough to actually believe that space is better. But to say that one came before the other and is therefore superior is a total non-argument. Anybody with a soul knows that life is richer than mere existence. Space is a zombie, a dementor, whereas the ocean is wine and chocolate. And sushi.

That settled, I present the ocean’s case. The ocean has everything good that space does not, beginning with sex. I challenge anyone to find the last time sex was had in outer space. Problems of momentum, of equal and opposite force, of mood music (I can think of few songs less sexy than “The Blue Danube”) are, if not insurmountable, certainly mood-killers. But the ocean—oh, the ocean is sexy. Trey Songz has nothing on it. Much love has been made in it, from the ecstatic spawning of barnacles to the undulating dances of whales. Love is being made in the ocean presently, in November, including among tropical corals, the endangered Atlantic salmon, yellow-foot limpets, and ocean quahogs.

The sea’s sexiness accounts for an unknown but astounding percentage of Earth’s living species. The teeming ocean covers about 71 percent of this planet’s surface, but encompasses 300 times the volume of terrestrial habitats. We don’t know exactly how much biomass floats and jets about the sea, since so many marine species remain undiscovered. This is a gross and tragic injustice resulting from the myth of space’s superiority: NASA’s annual budget for space exploration could fund NOAA’s budget for ocean exploration for 1,600 years. That we have so little curiosity for our Blue Planet—a fluid, endlessly morphing world all its own—is inconceivable. Robert Ballard, former Navy commander and current professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, noted in a TED talk that 50 percent of the USA lies under the sea, yet “we have better maps of Mars.”

We ignore the ocean’s superiority to our peril. I mentioned sushi, but the food thing goes further. Despite our neglect, the ocean continues to provide 400 million people in developing nations with their primary source of animal protein. And those who somehow can’t abide the transportive ambrosia of a well-seared scallop may sprinkle sea salt on whatever. Everything tastes better with salt—everything except freeze-dried Tang.

Everyone’s all excited by the possibility that moving to Mars might save us if the Earth one day suddenly explodes. But the abused ocean is crucial to keeping Earth habitable by regulating climate, thus making our terrifying colonization of the sexless, joyless, atmosphereless outer reaches completely unnecessary, provided we stop burning inordinate amounts of fuel to insanely launch into the sexless, joyless, atmosphereless outer reaches. The ocean accepts greenhouse gases, tempers our coastal zones, brings us soothing winds. And it provides us with clues—via isotope analysis of corals, sediments and ice—to peer into the past and learn about a prior Earth.

Happily, President Obama recognizes the ocean’s singular importance. During Ocean Month in June, he announced the country’s first ever Interagency Ocean Task Force. Charged with creating a national policy that ensures the “protection, maintenance, and restoration” of America’s marine environment, the Task Force may at last give the ocean the attention it deserves. But we must be diligent! There are some who, like my opponent, remain convinced against all proof that outer space is better.

If a tree falls in space but nobody hears it, did the tree still make a sound? No, because it is in outer space, where there is no sound. People who like music, conversation, or the sound of waves crashing should fear the none-ness of outer space. Embrace the sea. There is a wild spirit about the glimmering ocean, a profound energy—like a shotgun colt, a phosphorescent god. It soothes us in a deep and basic way, even during storms, calming us perhaps because it is itself an untameable, wandering thing, gulping and mawing, rocking and sliding, a partner to our hearts’ ill humors. The ocean is the truest reminder of our powerful and complex relationship with the natural world—it will destory us, it will nurture us. We can swim through it, sail over it, plunge into it, and come up gasping, laughing, startled and thrilled and scared, but we are tied to it, utterly. And in the end, we surrender to it. We release our hubris; we join it. Haven’t you noticed the way comets and meteors fling themselves, at last, into their watery graves?
Call me KATIE OKAMOTO B’09.5.

Outer space is awesome. Not in the “dude, that double backflip was totally awesome” kind of way but in the sublime, feeling of oneness, truly awe-inspiring kind of way. You can’t really appreciate space from a city, filled as cities are with light pollution and road noise. But if you’ve ever left the land of streetlights and neon signs, stumbled through a moonless night so dark that your eyes start to see patterns of colors from sheer confusion, and let the crickets’ rhythm take you away as you lay in a grassy field, then you know that there is no contest here.

Come to think of it, there’s not a lot of man-made light in the middle of the ocean. I bet it would be a great place for stargazing. Don’t get me wrong; fish are pretty cool. And yeah, there are some pretty pictures of the ocean but most of them are really of sunsets, reflected in the sea. The ocean simply serves as a mirror. No maritime scene stands up to the beauty of the cosmos.

In April, one of NASA’s scientific satellites caught a glimpse of a gamma ray burst, lovingly titled GRB 090423. At a distance of more than 13 billion light years, this exploding star is the farthest object ever observed by humans. This explosion, which released more energy in a few-seconds-long flash than the sun will have consumed in its entire 10 billion year lifetime, is also the oldest event humans have ever seen.

You can definitely see some neat things under the sea. But what you cannot do in, on, or around the ocean is see into the past. That is, however, exactly what you’re doing when you look up at the stars. When the light from GRB 090423 reached Earth in April, it finished a 13 billion year journey across the universe. In fact, when this giant star exploded in jets of super-hot gas and then collapsed into black hole, a mere 630 million years after the Big Bang, the universe was quite different than it is today. For one thing, it was nine times smaller.

Some might point to the ocean as the birthplace of life on Earth. But if we’re talking origins, space wins several times over before we even make it to protoplasm. Existence, not just of life but of every thing, is only possible because it exists in the spacetime of the universe. Space is not just some cold, empty, inert vacuum between all that stellar stuff. Einstein showed that space is the dynamic fabric of existence from which mass, gravity, and the other fundamental forces arise.

Since the Big Bang, the universe has been constantly expanding and cooling; it took 377,000 years just to get down to a temperature at which atoms could form. Once it got to the point when gravity could pull together enough material to begin nuclear fusion and ignite stars, matter could really start to diversify. Other than hydrogen and helium, every element in our Universe was forged in the heat of a star. That means every heavier atom of every thing on earth—rocks, oxygen, plants, people, and even the ocean—was born in the Sun.

Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, we can peer across billions of light years into deep space and gather images of galaxies, supernovas, and quasars. While we can marvel at their beauty, it’s impossible to really grasp the scale of things in outer space. This sheer vastness of space that outstrips every human scale is part of what makes space so sublime. Hubble has shown us brilliant nebulae—shimmering collections of space gas thousands of light years away and trillions of miles across coming together to form stars—but it’s hard to wrap our minds around these things. It takes about 50 million years for these shimmering clouds to come together and form an average star like our Sun.

So when we send astronauts thundering into space, it’s about more than just collecting moon rocks. As awesome as it is to watch a meteor shower or see the aurora borealis from Earth, I can’t imagine how cool it must be to don a spacesuit, float out into space, and take in the beautiful Earth below and the infinity of space beyond. These adventures to the ultimate frontier tell us about our existence, our past, and our place.

Humans have always looked to the stars to discover the secrets of our being, whether that meant drawing constellations or discovering the universal law of gravitation. Contemplating the vastness of space can be confusing, even a little scary, but humans have continued to squint up at the stars because they simply can’t help it.

While the ocean is accessible and fun to play in, we can’t let that distract us. Space is where it’s at.
When NICK WERLE B’10 went to Space Camp in fifth grade, he was the shuttle commander.