Category Archives: Exploration


That’s us.

Much of human history can, I think, be described as a gradual and sometimes painful liberation from provincialism, the emerging awareness that there is more to the world than was generally believed by our ancestors.

Earth day was this past Monday, a good reason to give some extra consideration to that ‘pale blue dot’ that every human being that has ever lived has called home. Will there ever be a day when that will no longer be true?

Carl Sagan, owner of the above quote (from Broca’s Brain) and a chief proponent of space exploration, was always a forward thinker, often extrapolating in the most hopeful ways from present realities to future possibilities. Some of his visions may have been a bit too hopeful, such as his conjecture that “perhaps by the early twenty-first century there will be interplanetary regattas competing for the fastest time from Earth to Mars”, but in general I think he stays square on the optimistic side of realistic. And he, like another famous astrophysicist/communicator, is a huge proponent of manned space flights.

Some of the reasons for space exploration are very much down to earth, addressing such practical realities as overcrowding and resource scarcity. To put it bluntly, minerals and elbow room are limited on the planet, unlimited outside of it.

But apart from such practical considerations, Sagan also encouraged space exploration for its metaphysical returns. He speaks of this ‘deprovinciaiization’ of mankind. As we learn more about places we visit, we understand more about how where we come from, the ideas and the culture of the place we call home, fits into this larger scheme. It gives us perspective. It fills in blank areas on the map and expands our sense of the relationships between places and people. One extreme example of this is the overview effect, in which astronauts experience a change in awareness concerning the earth and its place in the universe. From space there are no divisions between countries and people.

This deprovincialization of mankind has been aided powerfully, I believe, by space exploration – by exquisite photographs of the Earth taken from a great distance, showing a cloudy, blue, spinning ball set like a sapphire in the endless velvet of space; but also by the exploration of other worlds, which have revealed both their similarities and their differences to this home of mankind.

This kind of thinking is mirrored by Steven Pinker (Violence Vanquished), who argues that the world today is far safer than it has ever been before, largely due to the growth of government and global organizations and a more educated and worldly population.

A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Both Sagan and Pinker are addressing some very important ideas. The more we know about how we relate to people in other places, whether historical or geographical, and the more we know about the natural world, the better we understand our own circumstances at a specific place and time. Travel makes the world more peaceful. So it’s important to read and explore, to remove the barriers of ignorance. I often find that a simple walk around the block teaches me a lot about my neighborhood and a bike ride teaches me a lot about my city. The further I travel from my origin, the more I find out things that challenge my assumptions, that shake me up a bit and reveal a world I never knew existed.

The Overview Effect

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.

Starting with this quote from astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, the film OVERVIEW explores the changes in perspective that arrived with manned space flights and accompanying images that showed, for the first time in human history, the tenuous piece of real estate on which we all reside. When viewed from this vantage point, the Earth exists as a complete and unified whole, virtually free of any arbitrary divisions created by humankind. It also appears fragile and alone, something that needs to be fought for, cherished, and protected.

It’s a brilliant and beautiful film. It may be the most wonderful thing I’ve seen so far this year.

Science as an endurance sport

A few days ago a friend referred me to an article in the New York Times on the Barkley Marathons, a highly secretive and physically brutal ultra-marathon that takes place in the rugged mountains of Tennessee. With 100+ miles, unmarked trails, and no race support, it is a race that is designed to induce failure. In it’s present form, only 12 people (out of 800 racers) have finished it under the time limit of 60 hours.

One of the things I found interesting was a comment in the article from the race organizer, where he said, “most Barkley finishers had a background in science or engineering and all but one had an advanced degree.” That’s interesting, I thought. What is the connection between distance running and science? Commence speculation.

I have to admit that I’m a little bit biased, since I am both a runner myself (though not of the ‘ultra’ type) and a physics graduate student. I would like to think that runners are all just very smart people, or that scientists are all bad-asses. I’ve known enough runners and enough physicists to know that I can’t make those generalizations.

I posed this question to a friend of mine (also a grad student, and a runner in high school). He thought it might be that nerdy types prefer fringe sports, like ultra-running or ultimate frisbee or curling. There might be something to that. As the NY Times article comments, some of the Barkley veterans are a little miffed that the race is getting any coverage at all. They’d prefer that it stay secret and out of the mainstream.

But I think there’s more of a connection. I think that there is something in the personality of people attracted to distance running that brings them to science as well.

It might be the case that a person pursues endurance sports and scientific research for the same reason: because it is difficult, and they don’t know if they are up to the task. Runners who have pushed into the ‘ultra’ category of racing have likely done so because they have found that typical runs, on the order of a few miles, no longer provide enough challenges. “I wanted to test my limits,” one of the Barkley’s competitors says. “The Barkley is good for that because pretty much no one can finish it.” This seems to be in line with advice from Albert Einstein,

“One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

Wolfgang Ketterle, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics, agrees that there are some commonalities in the type of people who enjoy science and running. On the similarities of the two, he says

“I think both running and science reflect certain character traits. I have endurance, patience, and ambition. I’m willing to work hard toward a goal, to push myself and overcome limits. Running and science both let me express these traits. Also, this is one set of skills that made me successful in both science and running.”

So challenging oneself is a large part of the draw. But running can also provide an outlet for anxiety and a way to move beyond the stress of difficult work. Alan Turing, the highly influential mathematician, and one of the fathers of computer science, was an avid runner. He said, “I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard.” Running for him was a release valve, a way to move past the cloudy thoughts of a busy mind into clearer thinking. He is said to have come up with the basic idea of the computer while pausing in a field during one of his runs. Ketterle finds that running fulfills a similar role:

“When I run, I think about everything—physics, family problems, plans for the weekend. I haven’t made any big discoveries on a run, but it does give me time to think through problems. Some solutions are obvious, but they are only obvious when you are relaxed enough to find them. Running is like decompressing and cleaning up your mind. Your body is busy and your mind is free.”

So running may provide a way to step back from the rigors of analytic thought and allow ideas to coalesce in a different frame of mind.

This all just speculation, of course. There are many endurance athletes who choose not to study science or engineering, and there are many scientists and engineers who want nothing to do with athletics. In the end, maybe all we can say is that some people find running and scientific work to be very complementary. I know I fall into that category.

Mars MIssions Close to Home

One of the most ambitious projects that could take place in the 21st century is a manned mission to Mars. But how does someone go about preparing for a trip like that? With lots of practice.

One example is the MARS-500 experiment, a joint mission between Russia, China, and the European Space Agency that ended in 2011. Six volunteers were locked in isolation for 520 days to simulate a complete round-trip mission to Mars and to study the pyschological effects of such a trip. They “landed” and returned safely.

Also, here are some pictures from other practice missions by the Mars Society (in the desert in Utah) and the Austrian Space Forum (in the northen Sahara).

The continuing mission of Voyager

One of the most interesting outcomes of the space exploration push in the 60s and 70s was the Voyager program. In August 1977, Voyager 2 was launched on a mission to explore the solar system, followed shortly in September by Voyager 1 (yes, Voyager 2 was launched first, but it travels slower than 1, and has been surpassed). They’ve accomplished a lot, but as Paul Gilster notes at Centauri Dreams, they’re not yet done.

Voyager 1 completed its study of the solar system in 1980 and began its interstellar mission. Voyager 2 achieved this in 1989. At the moment, almost 36 years after their launch, the spacecraft are far out there (but not quite yet out of the solar system, depending on your definition). They’re still sending back scientific information, from such a large distance that it takes light from the Sun over 12 hours to reach them (out to Pluto takes about 5.5 hours). This makes them the farthest man-made objects ever sent out from Earth.

Their scientific missions virtually over, the spacecraft have adopted a new role as artifacts of human civilization, time capsules of everything we were when we launched them. In addition to the craft themselves, which have plenty of meaning (some thoughts on that from Matthew Battle), each of the Voyagers carries on it a Golden Record, a snapshot of our world, a collection of nature images and sounds, snippets of music from a variety of different cultures, greetings in 55 different languages.

planet montage


But space is immense. It will be 40000 years before Voyager 1 comes close to any other planetary system, and even then it will still be 1.6 light years away. There is virtually zero chance that these records will ever reach anything intelligent enough to decode and understand them. In all likelihood they will drift alone through the darkness of interstellar space for far longer than human civilization will be around. So why did we go through the trouble of making them and sending them out? This supposedly futile act has more to do with mankind than with any attempt to contact an extraterrestrial species. In Carl Sagan’s words, 

The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.

Much of the space race had to do with cross-cultural competition, nationalistic displays of military and technological prowess. The Voyager Records are an attempt to acknowledge to ourselves our own impermanence, to rally around the messages of hope and goodwill. Gilster sums it up well,

I think any future archaeologist, human or otherwise, would read into the Voyager spacecraft the desire of a species to transcend itself, hopeful of finding a bridge to other intelligence but pressing on regardless as a way of building meaning into the cosmos.

What is Extraordinary Voyages?

‘Extraordinary Voyages’ refers to the series of adventure tales written by the author Jules Verne, the man who may rightly be said to be the father of the science fiction genre. Verne (read a short biography here) is known for his predictive abilities and for his interlacing of fact and fiction in such novel and complex ways as to present fantastic ideas as foregone conclusions and far away places as right at our front door. His legacy and influence on those who followed him stretched into and through the 20th century.

In writing the Extraordinary Voyages, Jules Verne used imagination as a vehicle to carry people to the farthest known regions of knowledge and technological capabilities. Then he took them further. This was his great accomplishment, a creative leap that provided new possibilities and paved the way for future explorers to make his voyages a reality. A wide range of adventurers and scientists, from astronauts to polar explorers to other science fiction writers, have claimed Verne as one of their primary sources of inspiration. This is the reason for choosing the name for his body of work as the title of this blog. Imagination and a willingness to explore, traits that were embodied in all his stories, are central themes. Verne’s special role, that of a creator of possible realities, is tremendously important. Anything a person, or humanity as a whole, wants to become, they first have to be able to dream it. In the words of someone from a wonderful little shop known as the Imaginary Foundation.

Imagination is the factory that makes legends. It is the beginning of all achievement. To imagine is to perceive many potential futures, select the most delightful possibility, and then pull the present forward to meet it. Imagination has transported us from shivering in dark caves to triumphantly floating above our precious blue earth. It reminds us that reality is malleable and we are the architects of our own fate.

The first step to imagination is curiosity, the wonderings of a questioning mind. These wonderings have inevitable consequences. On the far side of curiosity and imagination lies discovery, that wonderful something, somewhere, that is waiting for us. And the bridge between curiosity and discovery is exploration, the searching and seeking that has permeated so much of human history. This is exploration on a very general level: the physical exploration of the world through travel and movement, the exploration of the workings of the universe through scientific discovery, and more personal exploration through reading and reflection. The fundamental link between all these things, the essential meaning of exploration, is the search for a better understanding of our world, our selves, and the connection between the two.