Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We Live in an Age of Marvels

I was born half a year before Sputnik, back when we and all our machines were trapped at the bottom of Earth's gravity well. Back then, we thought Venus might be habitable by humans and Mars might be covered with canals. Because the bottom of a well is not the best place to get a view of the neighborhood.

And now we can watch the moon Daphnis plowing through the rings of Saturn, trailing a wake like a speedboat. Awesome. And see splendid views of Mimas, that bears the scars of a titanic collision long enough ago that the crater is pocked with craters.

And we can read Elizabeth Bear's remembrance of first seeing Voyager's images of Io's sulphur volcanoes:

I remembered those images as if it were yesterday. Io's dragonskin colors, the plume of the volcano--the first active exovolcano ever witnessed--rising from its surface huge and spherical as a partially eclipsed sister moon. The false-color images, painstakingly chicken-pecked across interstellar distances and long minutes of light-speed lag by a data recording and transmission system that basically consists of an 8-track tape deck and a 160-baud modem.

And that was over thirty years ago. Some of you weren't born then.

Listen. We went there, but not in person. Some of the hands and minds that launched the craft are dead, but we bound what the machine saw, and you can see it. Long ago, one of our ancestors learned to bind what he learned and pass it on beyond his lifetime. Or hers.

That's our inheritance. We add to it, and pass it on.

And this is what we do.


andrewjameslowry said...

"That's our inheritance. We add to it, and pass it on."

And that is what makes humans unique to other animals.

Hugh Knight said...

With respect, Will, you see the great inheritance, I see only the lost potential. Buzz Aldrin said: "History will remember the inhabitants of this century as the people who went from Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years, only to languish for the next 30 in low Earth orbit. At the core of the risk-free society is a self-indulgent failure of nerve."

You remind us of what we have seen, but I would remind you that we should not just have seen, but *touched*. That is the inheritance we *should* have left. We should not only have seen images sent by robot vehicles, we should have been there ourselves.

Isaac Asimov said that if the human race is to survive then for the majority of its history the word "ship" should be short for "starship." Maybe that will still come to pass, but it seems unlikely. We're too busy cutting our space budgets for meaningless things like bread and circuses. All the snail darters that ever lived aren't worth a nickel beside a working fusion engine—not in the long run.