How science will help us find our way to the future

The most ambitious scientific mission may be to inspire humanity to act, says the author, a co-creator of Cosmos.

It was a rainy night when the future became a place, one you could visit. A downpour at sunset couldn’t discourage the 200,000 people who had gathered for the opening ceremony of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “World of Tomorrow” was the theme of this art deco land of promise.

There were television sets, calculating machines, and a robot. For the first time, people saw these things that would change their lives. But on that night they had come to hear the greatest scientific genius since Isaac Newton. Albert Einstein was to give brief remarks and flip the switch that would illuminate the fair. The spectacle promised to be the largest flash of artificial light in technical history, visible for a radius of 40 miles. A wow—but not as mind-blowing as the source of this sudden, unprecedented brilliance. Scientists would capture cosmic rays and transmit them to Queens, where they would supply the energy that would turn night into day, flooding with blinding light a new world made possible by science.

It fell to Einstein to explain cosmic rays. He was instructed to keep it to five minutes. Initially he refused. That wouldn’t possibly be enough time to explain this mysterious phenomenon. But he was a true believer in the scientist’s duty to communicate with the public. And so he agreed.

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