Freedom is the foundation of America’s ingenuity and success

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Freedom is the foundation of America’s ingenuity and success

America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, is a great country. Its openness about its character and the happenings that fill the news cycles have often created the impression of a dangerous country that is best avoided.  The seemingly worsening incidents of mass shooting and gun violence in general have created the impression of a country under siege. America’s noisy politics in the last six years, including an attempted coup d’état on January 6, 2021, has created an image of a country in chaos and at risk of unravelling. I believe that such an impression is probably false. 


The history of America’s conquest and formation is a mixture of glorious achievements and criminally dark acts. Its people are a healthy spectrum of characters, the vast majority of whom are as normal, kind and enlightened as those on other continents. The America that produced slave owners in the south also produced operatives on the underground railroad who helped slaves escape to freedom in the north and in Canada. The America that produced Donald J. Trump and his racist followers also produced Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and many millions of non-racist, progressive people that seek equality and justice for all. 


America that nurtures some ruthless policemen and other public officers, also produces some of the kindest philanthropists and human rights defenders. America whose prisons are full of deadly criminals, including serial killers, has concert halls and theatres that offer outstanding music and other entertainment of world-class standards.  While we see news reports of crazy politicians doing all they can to reverse the gains of the civil and human rights struggles, millions of scientists are bent over their laboratory instruments trying to advance our knowledge and wellbeing. We just do not hear about them. Their work is not considered newsworthy. 


So, America’s dark side coexists with a restless push to advance human knowledge, philosophy, governance, economics, the arts, scientific progress, and every aspect of human endeavour. From the discovery of electricity to the invention of air travel, telecommunications, computers, and numerous tools that we take for granted, America has been in the forefront of advancing modern civilisation. 


This is not to discount the excellent scholarship, inventions, and discoveries by a broad spectrum of scientists and artists on other continents. Intellectual cross-pollination has pushed our collective advances. And, to a large extent, America’s success has been driven by an influx of brainy immigrants from Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. However, there is a centuries old American tradition, namely freedom to fail or to succeed, that has undergirded the exploits of these brainy immigrants. 


An open society that puts few restrictions on people’s lives encourages the “sane ones” and the “mad ones” to mix it up and see what comes out at the end of the tunnel. The freedom to use social media, for example, complete with the right to abuse the country’s leaders and other public figures, enables an uncensored free market of ideas out of which useful conclusions and innovations emerge. Whereas there are clear laws that protect individuals against libel and defamation, they are designed to protect all citizens, not just the thin-skinned politicians who are afraid of criticism, questioning and public challenge. 


It is this tradition of freedom that enabled the transformative, albeit risky struggles, for the abolition of slave trade, the voting rights for women, and civil rights for all. That same freedom enabled the Wright Brothers to fly their strange contraption at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, which launched human air travel.


One imagines a similar endeavour in unfree societies, with the inventor’s enthusiasm checked by the need to get approval from the state’s chain of meddlers, from local security agents all the way to the president. One imagines the ridicule and insults that would be hurled at a woman attempting to scale an ancient tree in my village of birth in pursuit of science or other intellectual exercise.


Nothing American fascinates me more than their continued exploration of space. As I write, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has more than 80 active space science missions. For over four decades, I have followed the journeys of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts that were launched in 1977. In human terms, that is a long time ago. In space travel time, they have barely begun their journey to the stars in worlds unknown.


The two spacecrafts, now well over 23 billion and 19 billion kilometers from Earth, respectively, are outside our solar system. It is estimated that Voyager 1 will visit the neighbourhood of the Gliese 581 habitable planetary system in about 300,000 years. Voyager 2 should pass through the neighbourhood of the star Sirius in 296,000 years.  Someone may find the spacecrafts and, perhaps send us a text message, thanks to American ingenuity, freedom, and can-do spirit.


Of more immediate interest is the work that Americans are doing with other world scientists to develop an effective defence of our tiny and fragile planet from a potentially devastating strike by a meteorite, a comet or other space object that might be heading our way. Now, do not lose your sleep worrying that your wedding plans or Christmas festivities might be disrupted by a collision with a celestial rock. The chance of Earth being hit on any given day is about 1 in 300,000.


However, scientists have warned us for years that a rock with the Congolese sounding name of Bennu could hit Mother Earth in the next 300 years. Bennu, an asteroid that is about 500 metres wide at its centre, has been orbiting our Sun for hundreds of millions of years.


In a study published last year by scientists at the University of Arizona, we learnt that there is a 1-in-1,750 (0.0037%) chance that Bennu might drop in on us between now and 2,300 CE. In fact, the most likely time of being struck by Bennu, if it ever happens, is the afternoon of September 24, 2182.  Do not say I did not tell you. Not me, but the amazing scientists who measure, calculate and predict these things more easily than investment advisors on Wall Street. 


We know it can happen. A large asteroid, about 10 km in diameter, hit Earth near the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico 65 million years ago. It is believed that most of life on Earth, including dinosaurs, came to an end.


To avoid a similar catastrophe, albeit an extremely unlikely one, scientists are working to figure out how to redirect a hostile space rock onto a safer journey of eternal peace. America is on the frontline in this war of the worlds. We owe them a debt of gratitude.  Hopefully some of Uganda’s young students will consider joining this war for humanity’s survival.

© Muniini K. Mulera




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