photo of Norman Cousins


[6] Norman Cousins


Norman Cousins has been editor of Saturday Review magazine, except for 2 years, since 1942. He first came to the magazine in 1940, 4 years out of Teachers College at Columbia University. He was previously education reporter for the New York Evening Post and literary and then managing editor of Current History, a monthly journal of world affairs. During World War II, he was editor of U.S.A. magazine.

During his editorship of Saturday Review, the magazine expanded its readership from the originally 20,0000 to a present circulation of 500 000.

Cousins has written and edited more than a dozen books on many subjects, from [7] biography to politics to philosophy. His latest book is Celebration of Life (1974), a dialogue of immortality and infinity. He has lectured on American history throughout the world, often under the auspices of the US. State Department.

He has been active in organizations working for world peace since the end of World War II. He is President of the World Association of World Federalists and Honorary President of World Federalists, U.S.A.

He has received many awards for his work in journalism and for the cause of peace, including the personal medallion of Pope John XXIII, presented for his participation in negotiations with Russia for the release of two Catholic leaders from Iron Curtain prisons.

He was awarded the Peace Medal of the United Nations by Secretary-General U Thant. He is the recipient of honorary degrees in humane letters, literature, and law from 31 colleges and universities.

Cousins and his wife live in New Canaan, Connecticut. They have four grown daughters and an adopted daughter from Hiroshima, who now has a son. Cousins has a deep interest in photography, pursues active sports, enjoys chess, and, when no one is around, likes to play the piano and organ.


[8] Mr. Cousins

Thank you, Mr. Hearth.

The question, "why explore?" pertains less to the Viking 1 expedition in particular than to the nature of the human mind in general. We are here to consider not just the phenomenon of a journey to Mars but the phenomenon of intelligence. The fact that we can conceive of the inconceivable, and comprehend the incomprehensible, is perhaps the highest exercise of the human brain, symbolized so dramatically by the exploration of Mars.

It is a terrible thing, Tolstoi said, to watch a man who doesn't know what to do with the incomprehensible, because generally he winds up playing with a toy named God. Pasteur saw nothing particularly terrifying or unsatisfying about this situation, saying that the only thing to do in the face of the incomprehensible is to kneel before it. But that which is most incomprehensible of all is not a distant planet but the human mind itself; kneeling under these circumstances may represent the ultimate vanity. But the attempt to comprehend the mind, rather than to worship it, is an exercise devoutly to be consummated, if not wished.

[9] This is the direction in which Viking is taking us. Where is it likely to lead? Darwin contemplated his work and thought and considered the possibility that his theory of life could only lead to the existence of a deity. But he drew back from this line of thought by asking himself whether the mind of man, which has been developed from the lowest mind conceivable, could be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions. The answer, perhaps, is that in the very act of raising the question, Darwin proved the human mind capable of rising above the limitations he thought inherent in a supposedly unflattering evolutionary history. His question may be reminiscent of a remark attributed to Groucho Marx, who was invited to join a country club but declined, saying he didn't want to belong to any country club that would admit a man like himself.

Our question tonight, therefore, involves not just science but philosophy, for our answer has to come out of our view of life, out of our concept of history, out of our understanding of human progress, and mostly out of instinctive awareness that we can always do better than we are doing if we emancipate ourselves from our [10] fears in order to search the horizon for new prospects. So we look to our traditions and our philosophy as we expand the human presence in the universe.

Some historians see history as an accumulation of error. But history is also the story of the defiance of the unknown and of what happens when man tries to extend his reach. Such defiance is necessary because conventional wisdom has never been good enough to run a civilization. Not all problems are old problems; therefore, new approaches and new truths have to be discovered. In order to answer the question, "why explore?," then, it becomes necessary to refer to the phenomenon of human progress. I have a theory that progress is what is left over after one meets an impossible problem. The reason it is safer to travel in a Boeing 747 than to sit in your bathtub is that adequate thought has been given to all the things that can go wrong when you are in a 747, and not enough thought to what can go wrong in a bathtub. When you are in a 747, the experts relieve you of the responsibility for making correct decisions. This is something that does not happen in your [11] bathtub. What I am trying to suggest is that the more difficult and complex the undertaking, the more likely it is that knowledge will be gained that can be applied more fruitfully far beyond the undertaking itself. Viking 1 is such an undertaking.

Seven years ago, almost to this day, I was in war-torn Biafra. We were in a jeep. A plane loomed behind us out of the Sun and dove down on the jeep in a strafing run. We plunged into a ditch, face down in the mud. I could contemplate that even as we were pressing our faces into the muddy Earth in safety from our brothers, men found it possible to walk erect on the Moon. That evening, the war suddenly came to a halt, at least for a few hours. The word had spread through Biafra that human beings were setting foot on the Moon for the first time. Suddenly everyone had a new perspective. It didn't last long enough to cause the war to end altogether, but for a few moments at least we could contemplate the possibilities of human grandeur and to meditate on our station in infinity. In that sense, the most significant achievement of that lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon, but that he set eye on the Earth.

[12] He was able for the first time to develop a true perspective of that beautiful wet blue ball, as Archibald MacLeish described it, which possessed the millions upon millions of conditions that existed in precise and exquisite combination that made life possible.

And, from that station in space, what was most striking of all to the human mind was that human beings themselves held the price of life so cheaply.

Despite the gift of intelligence, the gift of mobility, the gift of historical perception, the gift of anticipation, human beings are preoccupied with undertakings that can make life on Earth uninhabitable. Nothing we make on Earth is in greater abundance than destructive force. We have amassed 30,000 pounds of destructive force for every man, woman, and child on Earth. We don't have 30,000 pounds of food in reserve for every human being on Earth, or 30,000 pounds of medicines, books, or any of the things that ennoble life. But we have an infinity of force to use against one another. In the middle of a forest of bombs on Earth, it is difficult to see the tree of life.

Bertrand Russell once said that man can [13] never resist any folly of which the human mind is capable. It is quite possible that the folly we have known on Earth has existed elsewhere in the universe. It is quite possible, however, that there are answers, better answers, than we have been able to find to our problems and our delusions. Ultimately, I think the question that must ignite the human mind in connection with the Viking trip to Mars has to do with our loneliness in the universe. We are transported by the notion that there may be other humans out there too. It is almost unscientific to think that life does not exist elsewhere in the universe. Nature shuns one of a kind. Infinity converts that which is possible into the inevitable. The fact that we are attempting to find out where and how may be the answer to the question, "why explore the universe?"

It is almost ironic that we should have to ask this question because it is almost as though we have to apologize for our highest attributes, almost as though we have to remind ourselves we are, by nature, creatures of exploration. To have a rendezvous with infinity will be the ultimate in human achievement.

[14] On our panel tonight are people who for many years have been asking why, not just about the universe, but about life itself. They have asked that question from different vantage points. I look at your right, extreme right, at Philip Morrison, the atomic physicist whom I first met, I think, in 1945 or '46, in those early days after the bomb was dropped when the atomic scientists were trying to get through to the American people, trying to talk about the implications of what they had done. Ever since then, Phil Morrison had been as much concerned with philosophy as he has been with science.

It's difficult for a man to live close to those things that can fragment our planet without asking why about everything, including the whys about some things many of us have not even been able to define or identify. Phil Morrison, what came to your mind when you were invited to join this panel?