On the last night of a graduate course in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado, Frank Bergon, our professor, told us that the “mountains will always be here,” by which he meant that many years after this time, we would find consolation in the idea of those mountains waiting for us, a permanent presence in our consciousness, a memory, yes, but more importantly, a reminder of an experience of simplicity and beauty and directness. I have not been back to the San Juan’s, but their reality and my memories of their trails and views remains a living thing inside me, a promise that often feels close by. In a similar, weirdly real way, the physical assurance of the Voyager Spacecraft’s cultivates a long-term sense of exhilaration and happiness within me. Long, long after I am gone, eons from now, those machines will be coasting through interstellar space at 38,000 mph. On their gold banner and record, they carry a fragment of humanities’ collective voices and music, of our chemistry and mathematics. In their construction, they represent our engineering skills. In their very existence, they represent our voracious desire to know everything and to make things that will survive us. These machines are assemblies that illustrate both our hubris and our audacity. Maybe those two qualities must join together for the species to do something grand.
The Golden Records fastened to both Voyagers “contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them.” Impressed upon them are a “collection of 116 images and a variety of natural sounds such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, and animal sounds, including the songs of birds and whales. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, spoken greetings in fifty-nine languages, and printed messages….”* The chances of another creature actually listening to this music is so small, but we know it is out there riding on the slipstream tens of billions of miles away, and if you only listen to a few of the selections after reading this Post, you too will think tenderly of this worthy emissary.
Pioneers 10 and 11, launched in the early seventies, whose missions were to examine Jupiter and Saturn, each carried “a small gold-anodized, aluminum plaque, six inches by nine depicting representations of the species – Homo sapiens – that built and launched them.” The plaques used “the language of mathematics, which seems to be universal, and … a sort of Rosetta Stone in the form of depictions of the hydrogen atom (hydrogen is the commonest element in the universe) and a pulsar map” to indicate our location in the Milky Way Galaxy.** “The power source on Pioneer 10 finally degraded to the point where the signal to Earth dropped below the threshold for detection in 2003. Pioneer 10 will continue to coast silently as a ghost ship … into interstellar space, heading generally for the red star Aldebaran …. Aldebaran is about 68 light years away, and it will take Pioneer over 2 million years to reach it.” Earth can no longer receive signals from Pioneer 11, now “headed toward the constellation of Aquila (The Eagle) …. Pioneer 11 will pass near one of the stars in the constellation in about 4 million years.”#
Under these winter skies, find a spot where the Sun comes pouring through a window, curl up in its heat, and think about these four wonderful instruments and their presence so far away from us, one heading toward Aldebaran, a name that sounds as if found in a book written by Sinbad, the other to carry news of our existence past a star in four million years. Both of the Pioneers are “ghost ships”, and while the Voyagers continue to send signals back to us, soon enough, when their power sources degrade, they too will drop into silence.
I would like to tap into my fantasy $Billions$ to fund two more vehicles, one to follow the rough trajectory of the Voyagers and on the way out of the Solar System to take a photographic tour of the planets, and this time to drop smaller probes into those places, machines designed to send back live images and to take the most sophisticated chemical readings possible. The second vehicle would head directly to Gliese 581g, 20 light years from Earth and a ‘Goldilocks’ planet, one within the habitable zone of a star and thus one that might contain an atmosphere and water. Add water and who knows what might pop up — cheetah, chanteuse, blue water wonders.
I would ask a collection of artists, writers, musicians, engineers and scholars to design additional discs, multiple ones now that so much can be digitalized, and to transmit to eternity (not an exaggeration) the collective wisdom, beauty and history of the species — paintings, mathematical and scientific discoveries, more glorious music, photographs and videos by the score and the greatest books — all compressed and waiting for the chance to be reawakened under other suns. My $Billions$, a few will be my choices — King Lear, Moby Dick, The Histories of Herodotus, maps of every kind, movies of every era, The King James Bible, War and Peace, The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Carvaggio’s and Vermeer’s, Goya’s, Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s, the Horses of San Marco in Venice, Rodin’s The Burghers Of Calais …. What would you add to these arks? Imagine this collection, this vast endowment, memorial, and testament, this concordance, still flying when all our empires will have been covered by forests or sand, when mountain chains will have eroded and new ones arisen. Still flying ….
This monotonous winter writhes forward. I have seen flocks of robins, and red-winged blackbirds are returning, but the cold persists. More storms are forecast for Sunday and Monday and Thursday, but these are merely the effects of the real world. Remember, “the mountains will always be there.” We can throw our imaginations forward and see those four machines, and others to follow I hope, and close our eyes against the snow and see them still flying so far away and so near.