Phil-osophically Speaking: December 15, 2011

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Man’s Gambit Into the Starry Unknown

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a place described by astronaut Buzz Aldrin as “magnificent desolation,” it was the summit of the American space program. Like many youngsters, I was thrilled by the high stakes and high adventure of man’s gambit into the starry unknown. My enthusiasm fueled my imagination and worked itself into a frenzy of possibilities. That lunar surface, which for untold centuries had bewitched its nightly observers from afar, now bore for the first time man’s footprints and everything seemed to be within our grasping reach.

My untutored ambition saw our flag being planted on Martian soil within a few short years and then — eternity and beyond? It was the age of the television series Star Trek and flights of fancy were common. There was only one slight problem with my fondest hopes: reality. It is one thing to send a flesh and blood human being 238,000 miles to the moon, quite another to hurtle him 53 million miles to Mars and back. The distances are telling and often decisive. For all the triumph and glory of the Apollo program, it was also humbling in that feting our desires it also sobered our hopes. Interstellar space travel in our lifetimes, young as we were, quickly fizzled.

But before we feel too defeated by the vastness of space, let us consider the Voyager missions. Launched in 1977, in the face of a fortuitous planetary alignment, the Voyager mission marks a stirring example how some of our aspirations spouted wings that were resplendently spread in the deep reaches of the last frontier. Voyager I and II were the engineering marvels of the age, where the ingenuity of physics created a ladder to the stars. Using the gravitational forces of the inner planets as slingshots to the outer planets, it has propelled these spacecrafts to unprecedented distances all the while sending images and data back to the Earth. In its rendezvous with the spectacularly ringed planet Saturn and its moon Titan, these ships have been propelled beyond our Solar System.  

Having completed its mission to the planet Neptune in 1989, Voyager I and II now progress  onward and are now journeying into that dim, glowing band that arches majestically across the immense and vaulting night sky. It is the famous Milky Way, a galaxy believed to contain as many as 200 to 400 billion stars and some 50 billion planets. Having traversed the boundaries of our Solar System, Voyager is being blown forward by interstellar gusts that sweep across the cosmic ocean. The astrophysicist Lawrence Krausse pinpoints, with mathematical gusto, Voyager’s implausible itinerary: In 40,000 years, it will travel within 1.6 light years of a star with the unpoetic name AC + 79388. In 300,000 years, it will pass within four light years of Sirius — the brightest star that can be seen from the Earth. He writes, rhapsodically, (as scientists who write for public consumption love to do) that “after the Sun engulfs the Earth five billion years from now, the only remnant of the hopes and dreams of humanity will be these two tiny metallic fossils.”

Nicely put, I would say, a kind of poetic denouement of our own extinction. There is, Professor Krausse explains, a lesson to be drawn from our fiery, inevitable demise: “We were lucky to exist for a brief time on this cosmic speck.” Sounds like Krausse is about to break out singing the lyrics of Camelot:

Don’t let it be forgot

That once there was a spot,

For one brief, shining moment …   

Well, you know the rest. It might serve us to remember that Voyager sails not into the sunshine, but the impenetrable darkness of space. That kind of kills the romance of this interstellar pilgrimage that carries messages of life here on Earth for anyone out there who cares to read them. That won’t be for a long, long time. Despite the old joke about the guy who says never mind about finding intelligent life out there — I can’t find any down here; the fact is there’s no mistaking scientists’ profound disappointment that they have yet to locate a scintilla of evidence of other civilizations other than on this blue and green orb that we inhabit. In fact, they have been unable to discover even the most elementary form of life.

This is disconcerting for much of the scientific community because they cannot countenance the belief that the human race is something radically different because it almost inexorably leads to religious presumptions. To the extent that those with that world-view embrace the exploration of the stars, they do so as a kind of interstellar “Manifest Destiny,” whereby the Universe is allotted to us by a Providence that has decreed the notion of human exceptionalism for our multiplying millions. For the scientist (or most of them) this is an unpalatable and tasteless solipsism that at least for the gullible could only be definitively repudiated by the discovery of another communicating civilization. It is this challenge that has attracted so many scientists to the astronomer Frank Drake’s Green Bank equation, which claims to calculate the number of habitable planets and thus the number of communicating civilizations. Drake, who is now a hardy 81, predicts approximately 10,000.

It has now been 50 years that we have been scientifically searching for extraterrestrial intelligence and I’ll be willing to bet (knowing that like Pascal’s wager no one will ever collect) that if the human race survives for another 10,000 years at the rate of progress we’ve experienced over the last 100 years that the detection of senescent life will prove frustratingly elusive. This is not to say such life does not exist. Indeed the absence of evidence has caused Green Bank proponents to argue that the Drake equation is subject to the Fermi Paradox, that while it predicts a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations will form it also suggests that advanced civilizations tend to vanish rather rapidly.

It is for cosmologists a sort of “God save the Queen clause.” While I am in awe of the unfathomable dimensions of interstellar space (after all I come from a long line of stargazers, beginning with my troglodyte ancestors), I do not find it nearly as fascinating as the loam and marrow of the longings of the human heart. While the wonders of the Cosmos are endlessly compelling it does not hold for me the fascination of the human comedy with all its soaring achievements and cataclysmic failures. The depths of our inner lives, the battle between good and evil and right and wrong — the hopes of civilization warring with the forces of barbarism are where the real drama of existence lies. It is the reason more people are attracted to soap operas than they are to science. This may seem simplistic until you realize that it is us, and only us, as far as we can tell, who are contemplating the mysteries of existence that stretch from the human soul to the expanding galaxies in the furthest reaches of time and space.

This may seem as but another vestige of human hubris; an odyssey of self-absorption, but it is born of the same mother that gave rise to my first conception of human limitations as it challenged the eternal vastness of space: reality.

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