Tuesday, April 21, 2015

South Dakota is now better than Mars?

My home state, the state of South Dakota, will be kicking off a new, well-intentioned media campaign to dispel the popular image that South Dakota is a desolate no-man’s land devoid of cultural and/or recreational activities. The television/internet spots open with the narration:

"Mars…the air: not breathable. The surface: cold and barren. But thousands are lining up for a chance to go and never come back."

Not too bad…yet. After the obligatory postcard pictures of the state, the narration continues with a tagline that is supposed to take advantage of the trending topic of the exploration and colonization of Mars:

"South Dakota. Progressive. Productive. And abundant in oxygen. Why die on Mars when you can live in South Dakota?"

The advertisement closes with the words:

"South Dakota. Plenty of jobs. Plenty of air."

Well, you know what they say about where using good intentions as paving stones leads…

As a South Dakota native and a passionate, principled advocate for reason, science, and humanity's ongoing efforts to understand and explore the cosmos of which we are but a small part, I am galled, disappointed, but sadly, not terribly surprised by the stupefying chain of metacognitive failures that led to anyone thinking that this was a good idea for a media campaign. Just several weeks ago I was incredibly jazzed when I learned that Neil deGrasse Tyson was slated to speak in Rapid City this coming October. Now I just hope he does not cancel after this eloquent demonstration of just how small-minded, benighted, and provincial the majority of this state is.

I live in South Dakota, and I would rather be on my way to Mars with that first batch of colonists than stuck here–at least intelligent conversation would not be so hard to come by. Let's see...which is greater, the average IQ of the first bunch of Mars colonists or that of the combined averages of the typical crowd at a Rush hockey game and that of the state officials in Pierre who thought this campaign was hip, clever, or witty?

I was recently watching one of the programs from the annual World Science Festival in New York City on the subject of exoplanets. At about 24:45 into the public talk, one of the scientists on the panel asked the audience if they would go to a potentially Earth-like planet around the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, a paltry 4.2 light years away, even if it were a 40 year, one-way trip. There were quite a few hands raised. This is exactly the kind of forward-thinking, intelligent, adventurous, and courageous people any state or nation should try to attract, the problem is, intelligence is also highly correlated with being able to spot the sort of irony that obliterates irony meters.

I knew a kid growing up whose surname was a five-letter euphemism for an erect phallus and his parents were so clueless that they named this poor kid Harold! When my (now ex-) wife and I were looking for names for our kids, we deliberately went through every possible mean, petty, cruel, and vicious permutation and combination we could think of…before playground bullies had a chance to. We had enough presence of mind to consider how our choice might conceivably backfire, and though we could never be certain we would be successful, at least we tried!

South Dakota officials have been rightly concerned about the exodus of graduates from the state's colleges and universities for greener pastures elsewhere, many before the ink on their diplomas has even had a chance to dry. As a graduate of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSM&T), I fail to see how such an ad campaign would attract bright, optimistic physics and engineering students, the sort that dream of the stars, to pursue their college education, let alone stay to teach or conduct research, in fields that will eventually take humanity to Mars and beyond, in South Dakota. Ever hear of the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium? Well, if this media campaign is successful, such endeavors, at least in South Dakota, may themselves run out of life-support…soon.

Lest I am accused of not offering constructive criticism, I would like to offer the following, minor tweaks to the ad campaign’s verbiage:

"Mars…the air: not breathable. The surface: cold and barren. But thousands are lining up for a chance to go and never come back."

"South Dakota. Progressive. Productive. And abundant in oxygen. If you want a life of Adventure, Challenge, and Opportunity, why go to Mars when you can live in South Dakota?"

"South Dakota. Plenty of jobs. Plenty to Explore. Plenty of air."

In all modesty, it does not take a rocket scientist, which I’m not, to improve on drivel.