If you don’t know who James Randi is, and sadly, he recently passed away at the age of 92, I can’t do him any better justice than this opening paragraph of his obituary by The New York Times:
There are few things I find more despicable than preying upon older, desperate individuals by claiming to be able to cure their ailments, and defrauding them out of money. Or just defrauding people in general by presenting yourself as some sort of supernatural person. James Randi, with both biting honesty and showmanship, pushed back against such charlatans. I’m thankful Randi existed. I’m also thankful for him because he influenced two of my favorite magicians, Penn and Teller.
Healthy, informed skepticism is something I respect a lot. But importantly, skepticism can quickly turn into cynicism, as faux-skepticism of everything, which is why it’s important that Randi infused his skepticism with a deep love and appreciation for the wonders of real human achievement. It’s one thing to be the force standing against the hordes of the charlatans; it’s another to also hold up the real accomplishments of the human species. What’s the point of denouncing without also upholding?
In devouring Randi videos on YouTube in the wake of his death, I came across the namesake of this blog post:
This simple, but profound fact never ceases to amaze me: There are human beings (some of whom are still freaking alive!) who left our planet — a fact within a fact that’s astounding! — and walked on the surface of the moon. It genuinely blows my brain out of my skull.
To go from the first manned flight of Wilbur and Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903 to the first manned flight into space (orbiting the Earth) with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961 to the first trip onto the surface of the moon with Neil Armstrong and the others on July 16, 1969 … Folks, within 65 years, we went from flying a plane for the first time to flying around the Earth to landing on the surface of the moon.
The speed of that development is an incredible human accomplishment. What a feat for our species! And Randi is right to be awed by it, and right to push back against the hordes who would want to put us back in the caves.
We did that! I use “we” here like Randi does to mean the human species.
From the caves to the moon! That’s beautiful and poignant to me. That’s why I try to never lose my awe any morning or night when I see the moon (or the sun or the stars). We are an incredible species. Yes, yes, as Randi says, we have also done awful, awful things, and the charlatans are part of us, after all, but my goodness, there is a lot of beauty to be found from our species.
I’m thankful to Randi for pointing it out and devoting his life to it. More skepticism, less cultist fantasy. More love, less cynicism.
Randi is right: Going from the caves to the moon is “miracle enough.”
What do you think?