Because it Matters: Happy Belated Birthday Carl Sagan

“How strange it is to be anything at all” – Neutral Milk Hotel

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Pal. I finally saw Gravity.  Amazing movie, for sure.  Your post about it was made even more poignant after watching it.  The movie made me think of another thing set a drift in space.

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On September 5, 1977 the space probe Voyager 1 was launched.  Its mission was to study our outer solar system and beyond.  It was a one way trip straight out.  Voyager 1 had completed its primary mission of studying the planets and was about to move on to the second mission of leaving our solar system.  A triumphant feat to be sure.  Upon the request of Carl Sagan, at approximately 6 billion kilometres away, NASA turned Voyager 1’s camera towards earth to take one last picture.  The Pale Blue Dot…..

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“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

We endlessly search to find out the meaning (or lack thereof) to our existence.  An innately human quality that has meant our survival.  At the end of last year, one of the key forces that created our existence was discovered. The Higgs Boson. The force that gives mass to sub-atomic particles. This force was theorized back in 1964 and physicists have been looking for it ever since. Well, it was found last year, and last month the people that found it were given a Noble Prize. They are saying that this is the great discovery of our time. Another fundamental mystery of the universe solved. Nice job people.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

To simplify it so as to be almost meaningless, the Higgs Boson plus an imbalance in the distribution of anti-matter and matter is why we are here looking at this computer screen, sitting on this couch, in this house, on this street in this city, on this land mass, on this planet, in this unending universe of matter. From all that exists, the smallest to the largest.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Matter. It is the eyes of your wife that make your heart flutter when you crack that joke that makes her laugh. It is the crayon in your hand when you are colouring with your daughter. It is the blood you wipe from the kitchen counter after slicing your finger. It is the air that you breathe.

It is……..But what is it?

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

From our smartphone to the view from the top of Mount Everest, this little quantum force gave it all to us. We use it to inspire us. We use it to get out of bed, nourish us and keep us warm during a cold day. We use it to put on each other’s fingers to symbolize our love. We use it to propel bullets at each other. We worship statues made of it and pray to it in our hour of need. We rocket it into the sky to look out into the universe to discover other mysteries like Dark Matter.  Matter is so fundamental that it can be easy to forget what it means or where it came from. It just is, but, if we don’t keep an eye on it, matter could be our undoing. From the trash on the land to the trash in the oceans to the trash in orbit, we risk being swallowed up by matter.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

A lot of the telescopes, satellites and probes sent into space are now broken or defunct. Add the physics of angular momentum, and you have got the worst game of Asteroids ever on your hands.  According to the Kessler Syndrome, all this debris could start a chain reaction of collisions that would wipe out everything. If this were to happen, our current ability to study our planet and the universe would cease for long time. This is a great concern, not only for Sandra Bullock but it is of great concern for the survival of humanity.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

The Voyager 1 is currently at the very outer limits of our solar system.  Past all the planets.  Past the ring of rock and ice (discarded matter during the formation of our planets) of the Kuiper Belt.  To the very edge of the sun’s influence.  And we have been collecting data from it the whole time. Soon it will just be adrift out in space.  Maybe to be found by some advanced alien species.

But we got that covered. Carl Sagan’s other contribution to the Voyager 1 was the series of Golden Records that were placed inside it in case aliens ever found it.  Entitled “Sounds of Earth” it contains a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, thunder and animals. They added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in fifty-six ancient and modern languages.

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A time capsule of where we are and the symbolic hope of where we strive to be.  A galactic shout of “WE ARE HERE!, WE ARE HERE!, WE ARE HERE!” from us Whos.

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Along with the records, are instructions for the aliens on how to build a phonograph to play them.  Lets hope they are advanced enough to play a record. Maybe our tiny blue ball of matter will matter to them.  Maybe if we have the strength to “YAWP!” loud enough, it will.

Later Pal.

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One response to “Because it Matters: Happy Belated Birthday Carl Sagan

  1. I absolutely LOVE the idea that we are the Whos shouting into space. I think that it could behoove many a human to listen to the soundtrack of earth that has been placed in the Voyager. I often think that we have an arrogance about us that is not befitting of our race, the insignificance of humans on the vast universe, and beyond. It is this arrogance, that I believe, will destroy our earth, faster than the astroids that orbit our fragile planet. Discussions such as these, added to the visual reminders given to us by movies such as Gravity (or Wall-E) remind us that it would not take a lot to destroy our means of survival and wipe out our planet.
    This discussion makes me sad and causes a wash of insignificance to overtake me, which is why I typically stay away from this sort of reading, but it is important. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it does not matter. This is important and needs to be stated, and yes, a YAWP would do nicely.

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