September 16, 2013

Tales of Voyagers

Does there have to be a human at the apex or tip of an endeavor — a historic endeavor — for that project to register in the human imagination? Think of Apollo and it's most closely associated with Neil Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins of Apollo 11 fame. Then there are the many other well known names from that era of historic space exploration.

But surely Apollo was a project that required the efforts of a million talented men and women and not a dozen or two dozen astronauts.

The old explorers such as Columbus and Magellan were financed by kings and emperors of that time. They were sizable exploration efforts requiring money and many humans and yet they are associated with a few individuals.

Same with the climbing of Everest and the first humans to reach the poles.

Perhaps the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids are the only major achievements of humanity that are not associated with specific individuals.


The great robotic explorers from the second half of the 20th century are similarly fruits of efforts of thousands of talented scientists and engineers. Somehow, perhaps predictably, the Voyagers, the Mariners, the Vikings, and more recently, Cassini Saturn, the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, have never quite acquired the kind of heroic status in the public's imagination.

And yet, perhaps that is not quite true. Perhaps millions around the world are indeed fascinated by the extraordinary feats of the Voyagers or the Hubble Space Telescope. More recently, the fraught landing of Curiosity on Mars became a headline news on that day last year.

Well, perhaps there is hope still.

As we deal with the messy aftermath of two years of civil war in Syria with more than a 100,000 deaths which has reached some sort of a pinnacle with a recent chemical weapons attack which killed more than 1,000 including 400 children, which is only a continuation of almost unceasing violence since the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, the long-term future of humanity itself appears to be uncertain. The same sort of conflicts over race or religion have been going on for centuries upon centuries.

When will humans learn? That the only 'differences' among humans are probably those that is made out on the basis of one's blood groups. Has not scientific progress demonstrated conclusively our kinship with all creatures on Earth? Has not science shown the vast stage of geologic time on which great plays take place with many acts that meander over millions of years.

Why are humans so obsessed with the 'here and now'? Why are humans so obsessed with their tribal identities? Why are humans so unable to rise above their parochialism?

Clearly, many millions if not billions of humans live their lives as if they are living in the 15th century completely unaffected by whatever progress humanity has made in the sphere of science & technology. Clearly, for millions, it hardly matters whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or the other way round. The only thing of import to millions of people is their tribal and religious and racial identities and they are happy to kill to 'defend' their own.

In light of this persistent attitude of medieval anti-scientific spirit, it sometimes seems remarkable to me that humans have achieved what they have achieved. And now one more great civilization-scale accomplishment has quietly come to pass. Or not so quietly.

While Europe and America and Japan continue to suffer from an extended period of economic malaise and nations such as India continue to be 'functioning anarchies' just as they always have been, Voyager I finally crossed a boundary of the Solar System and has transited into interstellar space.

 The details are there and they are being debated and the spirit of scientific inquiry is transparently and spectacularly at work. Phil Plait details all the scientific fine print. Stuff about the 'heliopause' and the 'Oort cloud.' And how this is not the first time that Voyager has 'left' the Solar System.

Here's Clara Moskowitz in Scientific American covering some of the same details about Voyager's historic achievement.

The BBC article about this great day for Voyager.

One more article in Scientific American talking about the vastness of the Solar System which also includes the Oort Cloud which the Voyager will reach in another 17,000 years!


On a somewhat unrelated note, it's interesting to learn about the man who wrote those wonderful words 'surly bonds of Earth.' He is John Gillespie Magee.

The triumphant Voyager missions and other scientific accomplishments bring to mind these lines from the movie Armageddon. Setting aside the scientific inaccuracies in that movie, surely one can appreciate these wonderful lines and the thoughts contained in these words:

"Through all the chaos that is our history, through all of the wrongs and the discord, through all of the pain and suffering, through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls and elevated our species above its origin. And that is our courage."

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