The Billion Mile Smile

planetarium at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich
planetarium at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Human and conflict are words that go together like horse and cart.  Our accumulated knowledge and experience show that things never stay calm for long in the outer Eden of human existence.  Moralise all we will, there is always grit in the mill of goodness and balm to the ointment of pain. We live at a time when the doors to the  universe are opening. Knowledge is expanding, our social fabric is continually being remade.  There is no such place as an island of calm, unless it is the eye of the storm.

I find it heartening that so many people across the world took the time to wave and smile as Cassini took the picture of Earth from behind Saturn’s rings.  All we got (of our planet) from the picture was  a fuzzy, over-exposed, blue dot accompanied by an even smaller white one that is the moon. The resolution was insufficient to register any details, even details the size of a continent. So the smiles and waves were never going to be seen. But that wasn’t the point. It was a global event  where people all over the planet gathered to  smile and wave together at a time when light from their part of the planet would reach Cassini during the exposure. It required not only goodwill, but a mutual understanding of science. The photograph itself was set up based on a mastery of celestial mechanics; knowing our place in a space-time arena where light takes hours to reach from Earth.

It was an acknowledgement that mankind can look back at itself and perhaps appreciate its place on a tiny crumb of matter in the perhaps unknowable hugeness of the cosmos. The ‘smile’ was not an attempt to show mankind’s best face to the universe, but a practical public way of demonstrating an understanding of our significance in the universe, and that we have the capacity to control, at huge distances, a machine we have made for the purposes of exploration.

In our various ways, over the course of human history, we have tried to show what worthy souls we are to the heavens, and the gods that reside within them.  In modern times, the Voyager probes took into space gold disks containing information of our achievements, our voices and music, including the sound of a baby crying and its mother’s reassuring voice, that may one day – in some improbable encounter – be found by an alien race. It wasn’t the certainty of success of contact that drove the attempt, but that a hand of friendship (at least as an intention) was offered to races we can only imagine.  The original ‘blue dot’ picture of Earth was from one of the images from Voyager 1 as it approached the edge of the solar system – the idea of Carl Sagan to show just how all of the human domain is less than a mote in the heavens.

Something worth taking from this, I believe,  is the unity and communal good intent linked by a common, rational, understanding of humankind’s place in the universe. Public science initiatives have the power to link nations and transcend conflict, and remind us of how good we can be.


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