Cosmic Wonder

I was watching The Planets DVD last night, which came free with the Sunday Times, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sputnik launch. It is a tremendous BBC documentary on the solar system, with a mixture of personal accounts of the scientists involved in its exploration, imaginative renderings of the planets themselves, and original footage from various probes and satellites.

Inevitably, when you think about the solar system, you are drawn into philosophical ponderings about the origin of life, the uniqueness of the earth, and the possibility for space exploration into the future. The DVD gathers together all of the best images and reconstructions and makes a very good job at explaining the passion of the scientists and the sense of elation and excitement generated. But the material alone, even without commentary, should be enough to stir the soul. What scientists have uncovered of the planets over the past 30 to 40 years alone is incredible. It surpasses every known fact about the planets prior to 1957 1,000-fold.

They even showed the best-available images of Neptune taken from earth-based telescopes. They were nothing more than crude bumps of light – no detail, no possibility of even seeing a discernable feature on the planet’s surface. But by the time Voyager 2 arrived in 1989, the pictures taken of Neptune were simply stunning.

The resolution was enough to discern patterns on the surface, including the famous Great Dark Spot.
Neptune’s Great Dark Spot

In a dramatic example of just how recent some of these discoveries are, there is an account given of the graduate student, Linda A. Morabito, who in 1979 discovered the first evidence of an active volcano on another solar system object, Io, a moon of Jupiter, by studying images from Voyager I.

At first, I was struck forcibly by the intense beauty of these worlds. Modern abstract art has produced nothing as crazy or stunning. Only look at Jupiter’s swirling clouds of gas and dust; or Saturn’s rings with their incredible complexity; or the Jovian moons of Europa and Io, or Saturn’s Titan. Each moon and planet is utterly unique: there hardly seems to be a common pattern emerging. It ranges from the rocky Titan, with its bizarre half and half appearance, like two moons squashed incongrously together; to the pizza-like appearance of Io, with dashes of red, purple, yellow, and blue across its surface, or Europa with its smooth billard-ball appearance, punctuated by endless cracks and tracks criss-crossing its icy surface.

Then I became awed by the sheer audacity of the human scientists who constructed the probes sent out to explore these worlds: from the Voyager I and II missions, to the Venuvian landings made by the Russians in the 1960s. Venera 9 sent eery pictures back from the surface of Venus. The temperature was 500C on the surface, so the probe melted within a few minutes of landing. But the pictures sent back are the first from any planet outside of earth. An historic first that happened 37 years ago.
Venus, from Venera 9

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that these discoveries should change the way we think about humanity and its role in the universe. First, while we appear to be alone in the solar system, in terms of intelligent life, the mere existence of so many different worlds forces us to ponder the real possibility that the universe is teeming with similar solar systems with vast arrays of intelligent life forms on them. It is estimated that there are 100,000 million stars in our local galaxy alone, and that there are 100,000 million galaxies in the universe. At that rate, the potential for life is simply too great to dismiss. So, we’re not unique. This vast, vast space was not created for mankind, either. (And I mean VAST: as Douglas Adams famously says in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe: “Space is big, mind-bogglingly big. I mean, you think it’s a long way to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”) So, let’s drop the human-centric navel gazing and the bizarre idea that God, if He exists, created this world for our benefit. He doesn’t; and if He does, He didn’t.

On an individual level, it produces an intense spiritual calm in me. I can’t explain why exactly: it just raises my consciousness a notch or two, it expands my mind. I get calm because I consider just how trivial our day-to-day concerns really are. Of course, it doesn’t pay the rent. But without that feeling of awe and wonder, we have lost our souls. I will watch these documentaries again soon, perhaps when I’m really drunk. Now that should be some trip.


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