Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

Belated Sagan Sunday

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COSMOS: A Space-Time Odyssey, the trailer

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the legendary series on science (and which is available to watch online for free from Hulu), is being redone for the new century. Filling the shoes of Carl Sagan will be the man who is likely today’s biggest popularizer of science: Neil deGrasse Tyson. Cosmos, both then and now, aims to outline much of what we know about the universe and how we came to find ourselves in it. The preview makes it look like a high budget Hollywood film, and I’m pretty excited about it.

 

Deprovincialization

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 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.