it will take the super-human efforts of men like Carl Sagan. That phrase “If we are to survive etc…” is overused I know. But recently I had a discussion with my cousin about science and the efforts of men like him.
It so happened my cousin was coming to my city, Portland, OR. I didn’t know ahead of time, but when I got a text from my dad at noon last Tuesday, I texted my cousin right away. I understood his reasons for not getting in touch; he was on business from Atlanta, GA and so of course the trip would be short. How his time was spent would be out of his hands mostly. Weird thing, isn’t it? But that’s for another time…
Anyway, we did end up have dinner and drinks. We talked the way I usually do with all my family, or maybe we talked the way my family usually does. Quick hellos and greetings followed immediately by deep philosophical pondering. It’s a God damn wonder why this happens. But it does, without fail. And what makes the discussion so much more wonderful and odd is that we rarely get to see each other (I guess that, in the time that I remember (age 5 or so, on) we have seen each other 10-15 times), yet here we are, one minute in my apartment talking about my roommate’s Guided By Voices album, the next minute discussing Infinite Jest (one of my favorite books) by David Foster Wallace (one of my favorite authors). Then we are in a pizza shop discussing what science doesn’t get about religion and spirituality and what rednecks don’t get about evolution.
There is always an underpinning of pessimism when we, 20th century humans, discuss our future. Our fraught human nature can fatigue even the proudest optimist. Sagan, in nearly the same breath, spoke of our pale blue dot—our “mote of dust” in the vastness of space—as a place where everyone we have and will ever love exists and the stage for cruelness beyond comprehension. A photograph of our planet taken from 3.7 billion miles away inspired this meditation. Our tiny speck is barely noticeable in that photograph.
The Voyager 1 spacecraft took this photograph in 1990. The little human satellite is now leaving our solar system and will be the first man-made craft to do so. Think about that. A little extension of us will float out past the solar winds and magnetic field of our sun, the only star we have ever known personally. More amazing, for me, is the Golden Record the spacecraft holds. This recording of human greetings in 55 languages and music from every corner of the planet is the truest extension of us. It is unlikely that any alien race will ever find the spacecraft, of course, but if they did they could hear the music of Bach, an Indian raga, a Peruvian wedding, Aboriginal folk songs, and Navajo Indian night chants. How could these aliens not listen in captivation and wonder?
Voyager 1 is a small hope in an often-unbearable sea of present human agony. This I cannot deny. But it is an effort not to preserve our race, merely to share its beauty. It is science that sent Voyager 1 into space and it would take science to find and decode the spacecraft’s message. This is science at its best: carrier of knowledge and beauty. We get to discuss, in moments of eerie calm and lucidity in our lives, scientific wonders and how those wonders challenge the self. We get to wonder at it before we go to sleep or on a long road trip or at a pizza shop. And sometimes the wonder of it all, our smallness and greatness, the outer reaches that science has brought us to, bubbles up into our consciousness so suddenly we nearly fall over. As science explores the massive things in our universe it also explores the smallest components inside each of us.
Click on the Golden Record below to hear all the sounds on the record. Beautiful Stuff
–It’s a Beautiful Day, I Need a Thermonuclear Fusion Satellite