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What does progress mean to you?
Progress is, in a way, a very subjective thing. For me personally, it means having a more humane society: parity for women, men, minorities, LGBTQ . And it also means to become a bit more rational and scientific in our approach to a lot of things. People often say that rationalism is the opposite of being humane – but I don’t think that’s the case. We can use rational thinking and everything we’re learning from science to generate a better society.

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Suzanna Randall at the ESO Supernova building in Munich

How is science related to the idea of social progress?
Science can be the solution to most things if you apply it properly. The recent surge in conspiracy theories is the opposite of progress, I would say. Our role as scientists is to try to counteract what is happening out there and to use science to redirect things towards progress and development. But it’s up to politicians and sociologists to convince people of that.

“People often say that rationalism is the opposite of being humane – but I don’t think that’s the case”

How can science help to improve our world?
In terms of climate change, all the evidence is already there: the scientists all agree that the extreme weather patterns we are experiencing are a result of human influence. Technological innovations, such as alternative energy sources or cleaner motors, are important and have a major role to play in helping us to move past this. But fundamental change must happen in our society: we have the evidence and we have a lot of the technology but we don’t have the will to apply it. Society is lagging behind.

How is space a frontier for human progress?
I am often asked why human space exploration is important. The answer is that if we go to Mars with a robotic missile mission, it is cheaper and safer; to put it simply, we learn a lot more per dollar. But for me the more pressing thing is that we are getting humans into space to serve as representatives – not for one country or another but as representatives of Earth. Any astronaut that goes into space says that the most interesting thing is the overview: you see the planet as a whole; you don’t see the individual countries, you just see the planet. It gives you some perspective on the world.

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