On human achievement

This week, of course, is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.   I've been watching a number of the documentaries that have appeared on cable all week long.   I've found them incredibly fascinating --- I've long been fascinated with the space race, for a variety of reasons.    But my thoughts keep turning to a memory from some years ago.

Somehow, since I became a "grownup", I manage to find my way to Washington, DC, every few years or so --- sometimes on vacation, sometimes on business, sometimes a bit of both.   My memory is from one of those early trips.

I found myself on the Mall with a day (or at least an afternoon) free for whatever I might choose to do.   As many tourists are want to do, I wandered over to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and spent a couple hours there.   My highlight was viewing the Apollo capsule on display there.   It amazes me that three people could live in a space so small for that long, while achieving the amazing feat of making it to the moon and back safely, with less computational power than I carry around in my pocket today.   It was clearly a technological achievement --- possibly one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

And then I traveled several blocks down the Mall, ducked off onto a side street, and visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and spent a couple hours there.   If you ever have the chance to visit the USHMM, you should.   The historians have done an amazing job of curating the history of the Holocaust in a way that I've never seen in any other museum, before or since.   It is tricky to find a way to convey the horror of the Holocaust without being gratuitously horrific, and they have done so masterfully.   (In some ways, the lack of gratuitous horror makes the impact even more horrific.)

The Holocaust was also an incredible achievement of humanity --- incredible in the horrific sense, to be sure, but still incredible.    The Holocaust was an occasion for technological advances as well: advances in computing tabulation technology used to document the extent of the Holocaust, advances in medical knowledge due to the unethical experiments performed upon concentration camp victims, and other such advances.   

In short, the Holocaust was also "one of the greatest achievements of humanity" --- if by "greatness" we mean "magnitude", not "worthy".

Visiting the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum back-to-back has left an indelible impression upon me.   Humanity, at its best, can achieve amazing things.  It can also, at its worst, achieve horrific things.   

And so while I, too, marvel at what humanity achieved 50 years ago, I am chastened by what humanity achieved 75 years ago.   

Humanity is capable of wielding great power.

With great power comes great responsibility.


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