Wednesday, October 2, 2013

So Voyager has left the Solar System (and much earlier than this post thanks to a general lack of time on my part for writing).

It is an exciting time for many people, both astronomers and others, myself included.  It comes at an exciting time in science.  We are at a point where congress and NASA have the technology to fight over how best to get to Mars, and whether or not capturing an asteroid is a worthwhile endeavor for our money.  No longer are these things relegated to the realm of Science Fiction only.  We are living in a time in which the seeds of our astronomical dreams are opening up and spreading forth new possibilities for us to pursue.

picture of Voyager:

 Voyager's exit from our solar system is a big step forward for us.  It is the first man-made object to do so.  Many of us hope this will on day be followed by more probes and eventually my mankind.  The event brings a sense of adventure that is badly needed in a time when it seems that most technological progress is being made on cell phones and tablet computers.  I should be swept up in those feelings, and part of me is, but part of me just feels sad for Voyager.  It is a lifeless machine with no need for companionship, but I can't help but impose my own feelings onto it.  It will never return home.  By 2025, it's power will fail and if will float on quietly.  In about 40,000 years it will pass by another star - Gleise 445.  But even that star will remain far to the side of it's path.  I'm not sure when, if ever, Voyager will enter another solar system, but I know the time scale is too large to really bother worrying about.

When I was little I had a difficult time getting to sleep.  I still do. As I lay in bed, terrified of monsters lurking in darkened corners of the room, I was even more terrified of not being able to sleep.  I would lay in bed trying so hard to fall asleep that it was a full-on job in it's own right.  Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I would drift off and be happy.  Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and it would dawn on me that I was the only one up.  My parents would be sleeping in bed, the living room lights and TV would be off.  The apartment would be huge in it's silence.  This thought would creep up on me from behind, whispering to me that I was on my own, alone in the world.

I carried that around with me for a long time.  It made the task of going to bed that much worse because it was a race - a race to fall asleep before my parents went to bed themselves, a race to be unconscious before I found myself alone in the dark. Around the time my parents divorced, that changed.  Unconsciously seeking escape from the stress - unconscious because I don't really recall there being many fights etc in those early days - I spent my free time after school hanging out with friends or watching TV alone at home.  I began getting up in the middle of the night to finish my homework.  By fourth grade my grades had plummeted as I stopped doing homework altogether.  As a result, I hated schoolwork more than ever and isolated myself from it more that ever.  I had friends but sought to spend more and more time on my own.  Loneliness was an odd concept to me at that point - I wanted to be physically alone, but increasingly I felt socially alone, cut off from my peers by my poor performance in school and perceived social awkwardness.

By high school I relished being alone.  I had plenty of friends and enjoyed my time with them, but I also lived much of my life alone and reading.  I often stayed up well after my mom went to bed, but now I loved it, loved being the only one awake.  Like many teens, as much as I loved my friends, I often thought of myself as separate from them - distant.

Fast forward to 1997 when the movie Contact came out.  There is a scene towards the end of the movie where the heroine, Dr. Arroway, alone inside the machine (kind of a spaceship of sorts) gets a full panoramic view of the Milky Way galaxy which she is suspended above.  For some reason I could not find a good screen shot of that scene, but I think the scrip does a good job of it:


So many dazzling multicolored stars they almost touch.
Millions more stars than are visible from Earth on the
clearest night.

An immense, spiraling river of gas and dust, millions of
miles long, pours into the maw of a black hole of
staggering dimensions.  Flashes of radiation leap from the
center like summer lightning --

  The center of the galaxy...

Pretty awe-inspiring huh?  A beautiful swirl of lights as billions of stars make there way around the central disk, our own Sol one of them - magnificent.  To me at the time - horrific.  I was struck in that moment by just how far away Dr. Arroway was from everything familiar; in fact from everything period.  I couldn't stop thinking how empty her little corner of the Universe was at that moment.  How many light years was she from the galaxy?  For me, that moment represented the truest form of loneliness.  It is not the lack of friends, or even other living things - it is the lack of everything.

Walking home that night, and for days afterward, that feeling haunted me.  That scene had opened to door to  a level of solitude I had never known.  I had often wondered about it.  When I was in Sunday School as a child, the notion that in the beginning of the Bible, God is alone.  There are no angels or demons, no stars, no people, no light or darkness.  Nothing.  It is a common start to religious creation stories.  The Egyptians were a little kinder to their creator Atum, who began life alone in the water body Nu.  At least he had water surrounding him.  I'm not sure if that was much comfort.

Either way, the experience of being the only one, the only anything, must have been unpleasant to these divinities.  It is such an alien concept that I don't think we have the capacity to imagine it.  Take a moment and try anyway.  You are alone.  There is nothing around you.  No objects, no sounds, no light or color, no sensations of any kind because there is nothing to sense.  Nothing.

I can't do it, not really anyway.  The closest I can get is to remember back to that scene in "Contact" and I find that unpleasant enough.

I think that initial scene of so many creation stories serves as much to separate and elevate God for us as to explain the beginning of the universe.  For early man, living in small communities, huddled around fires at night and cooking the day's collection of roots, berries and small game, the idea of being cut off from each other must have been horrendous.  To me, it is interesting that they could even conceive of there being no universe at all.

Science may be more ready to help us in this.  A current theory is that the universe is like a bubble in a sea of other universes, cut off but surrounded by them.  I find that comforting.  There is no promise that we could ever peek into these other universes or even sense them but the idea that they could be out there, is something.  Nice as that is however, it does little for us when the void of space presses into our conscience.  Being so small and delicate, it takes little to pull me back to the enormity of the emptiness of space, and Voyager's accomplishment has done just that.

Voyager thinks nothing of it's trip into emptiness.  Even if it could emote somehow, maybe the sheer magnificence of the cosmic vista and the knowledge that somewhere out there, there was life to be found, would be enough for it.  Here on Earth, I find myself dreaming of alien worlds and what they might be like.  What it would feel like to walk on them, see the stars from a new angle or even enjoy the local life if any existed?  I'm not expecting any miracles but we should be able to get a much better picture of these things for the many extra-solar planets we have now discovered and those we have yet to find.  If we never find life elsewhere, will we find ourselves lonelier for it?  Will we shut down the space program and call it a day.  Will we suddenly feel the full weight of responsibility we have in taking care of our own planet and turn over a new leaf, or will we instead submit to a planet wide depression and destroy ourselves in a fit of rage and self-hatred?

Personally I think that we will keep going, exploring the universe to learn as much as we can about it, our origins and our place in it.  I think that given enough time, we will do our best to spread to Mars and maybe even beyond.  We will do this, not only because we might need the space or the resources, but because of the peace it brings - the knowledge that no matter how lonely we feel at night, alone in our cities, nations and continents, that we have neighbors to share the stars with us.

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