Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

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It brings tears to my eyes. A little guy millions of miles from home. The only spark of acknowledged intelligence on the entire planet. It’s his birthday and he’s singing “Happy Birthday” to himself. It’s downright depressing. The guy, however, is the Mars rover Curiosity. It is a machine. The headline, however, jerks an emotional response from all but the coldest of individuals: “Lonely Curiosity rover sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself on Mars.” It’s that word “lonely.” It gets me every time. Then I stop to think about machine consciousness again. Empirical orthodoxy tells us that consciousness—which is probably just an illusion anyway—is restricted to people. Animals, we’re told, are “machines” acting out their “programing” and not really feeling anything. So robots we build and send to empty planets have no emotions, don’t feel lonely, and are not programed for sadness. Even your dog can’t be sad.

Amazing how short-sighted such advanced minds can be.

We don’t understand consciousness. We’re pretty wowed by our own technology, however, so that building robots can be brought down to the level of middle-school children. We build them, but we don’t understand them. And we may be losing part of ourselves in the process. An undergraduate I know who works in a summer camp to earn some money tells me a couple of disturbing things. Her middle-school-aged charges are having trouble with fine motor skills. They have trouble building basic balsa-wood airplanes. Some of them can’t figure out how paperclips work. One said she couldn’t write unless she had access to a computer. This camp worker’s supervisor suggested that this is typical of the “touchscreen generation.” They’re raised without the small motor skills that we’ve come to take for granted. Paperclips, it seems to me, are pretty intuitive.

Some 34 million miles away, Curiosity sits on Mars. An exile from Earth or an explorer like Henry Hudson? Or just a machine?

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Machines don’t always do what you tell them to. I attended enough high school robotics sessions to know that. Yet at the local 4-H fair the robots have a tent next to the goats, the dogs, and the chickens. We’ve come to love our devices. We give them names. They seem to have personalities. Some would claim that this blog is the mere result of programing (“consciousness”) just as surely as Curiosity’s programmed singing to itself out in the void. I’m not for turning back the clock, but it does seem to me that having more time to think about what we do might benefit us all. This constant rush to move ahead is exhausting and confusing. And now I’m sitting her wondering how to get this belated birthday card delivered all the way to Mars.

Myth Making

Beautiful.  Standing outside in the pre-dawn, looking up at the current alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the east, I am struck by their presence.  The planets, “wanderers,” were known by the ancients to be gods.  Tales were told of how they came to have their places in the sky.  For those too busy to look up, Venus alone can take your breath away.  After the sun and moon, it is the third brightest natural object in the sky that can be seen on a quotidian basis.  It has been brilliant this month, and the peoples of ancient times were fascinated by how this morning and evening star rose high only to flee before the coming of the sun.  Myths were built around it.  Venus, it is no accident, was associated with the goddess of irresistible beauty.  She still is.

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Trailing behind is Jupiter. The Roman avatar of Zeus, Jupiter is the king of the gods, but not the brightest.  Following Venus, it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, followed by various stars in their unchanging positions.  Jupiter seems to be chasing Venus these days.  Sometimes I see the two of them cavorting in the light of the moon.  The object most desired by the king is no object at all, but a goddess who outshines even the power of the primal deity.  And then there’s Mars.  Mars lags farther behind, never quite the master of war, at least according to Homer, that he hoped to be.  He is nevertheless the consort of Venus, for strong emotions tend to go together.

I glance at my watch and I know I should be headed to the bus stop by now, but I dash inside for the camera.  It is a vain hope that I can capture what even these eyes can plainly see.  It is a drama acting out in the celestial sphere.  Three planets in a neat line, clear as Orion’s belt, within the length of my thumb held at arm’s distance.  I can hear the bus rumbling toward the corner, and I know I’ll have to rush, but even as I power-walk to the stop, I keep glancing over my shoulder to catch a few last glimpses of a myth in the making.  Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the magic in our lives, when we can’t even take the last moments of darkness to pay tribute to the gods?

Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

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No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.

Martian Ethics

MartianIf you need a boot of optimism, look to Mars. Or, more specifically, read Andy Weir’s The Martian. Not that it’s the greatest literature ever produced, but it is a story brimming with humanity. Mark Watney is accidentally stranded on Mars. His crew-mates, in the midst of their multi-month-long return journey, adjust their course to go back for him. Naturally, nothing goes as planned. Although much of the story is far beyond the believability scale, Weir has the technical background to make it all sound plausible. As an engineer, Watney fixes most problems with an optimism that would leave many humanities specialists weeping in the dust. Time after time a potentially fatal situation develops that is solved by technological ingenuity. Relying on his will to survive, and good humor, the protagonist makes a remarkable journey across the surface of the Red Planet to a potential means of escape. I shouldn’t throw too many spoilers into this post since the book is fairly new. I will say it left me feeling good about being human.

Part of being human is thinking about larger issues. Often, throughout the book, Watney wonders about belief in God. Not enough to make it a main theme, but enough to merit mention on this blog. In a somewhat humorous moment, one of the mission controllers says that he’s Hindu, so he believes in lots of gods. In contrast, Watney, alone on Mars, has a vastly different perspective. Without divine intervention, or even any aliens, he finds a way to persevere when the Fates (or the author) have stacked the odds against him. Mark Watney believes in himself, and he believes in human goodness.

The decision of his crew-mates to return for him is one of potential self-sacrifice. There are no guarantees that they’ll survive. Nevertheless, there’s no second thoughts. When they learn Watney is alive, they decide to go back, no matter what might happen to them. The story awoke a strange optimism in me. Although people are capable of horrendous acts against each other and the planet, I do believe that we are basically good. The bad ones make it into the news. We could all be better, I’m guessing. Still, we will help others when we can, even if all we get from it is the good feeling that we’ve done the right thing. Unfortunately, the only people, it seems, that don’t have the best interests of others at heart are our politicians. Watching the posturing before the primaries I do have to wonder if one wouldn’t stand a better chance abandoned on Mars than in the land of the free. This may be one of the times, it seems, that trusting in human goodness might well be equated to a prayer.

Hallowed be thy Kane

Watching the alien burst from Kane’s distended abdomen as he appeared to have eaten too much seemed somehow appropriate on Thanksgiving. I’m well aware that my taste in movies does not always match expectations and few bother to comment on my idiosyncratic observations. Nevertheless, it had been years since I’d watched Alien and on this particular holiday it felt like synchronicity. I’ve seen the film a few times before, but this is the first time since starting this blog. Not surprisingly, some biblical allusions popped out at me as I watched the crew of the Nostromo struggle with alien life. And I’d just read of NASA’s “exciting discovery” on Mars, a discovery whose official announcement for which, like Christmas, we’ll have to wait until December. Learning that the gut-busting alien was modeled on Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon (a contemporary one) only sweetened the analogy.

Character names hide aspects of personality and intention. Sometimes the writers may not even be aware of all the shades of gray. The alien’s first victim is Kane. On paper he seems an ordinary citizen, but on the screen the euphony with the first human child, Cain, is obvious. As Parker is lamenting how large the alien has grown in just a short time, science officer Ash whispers, “Kane’s son.” Or is it Cain’s son? Cain, the infamous ancestor of the sinful Grendel and any number of other villains of literature and cinema. Cain is, significantly, the first child born in Genesis, himself the genesis of sin in the world since his murder of his brother is the first act that the Bible declares a “sin.” The alien, born worlds away, conforms to biblical expectations.

Since Ash is actually an android and has no real feelings, he admits the alien to the ship and protects it until he is destroyed by his shipmates. He represents unfeeling science amid the horror of human bodies being invaded and rent apart. When accused of admiring the alien, the resurrected (!) science officer states, “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Is he not really describing science itself? Religion is running rampant on the Nostromo. As Ripley sets the detonation charges and finds her escape blocked, she races back to the console and cancels the self-destruct order which the HAL-like Mother ignores. In a secular prayer Ripley calls out to Mother who, like any deity, does not answer all human pleas. And even as she escapes the detonating ship, Ripley will find that Cain’s son is still lurking in the corner of the emergency shuttle, for the science can never truly escape from Genesis.

Unbelievable Voyage

In Sunday’s paper a story from the Los Angeles Times reported that Voyager 1, now 35 years old (and a technological grandfather, considering how quickly technology develops), is poised to leave the solar system. It is the first mechanical device, at least designed and launched from earth, that will do so. The spacecraft, billions of miles away, sends signals that take 17 hours to reach earth. It is boldly going where no man [sic] has gone before. The vastness of open space was one of the initial challenges to the traditional theology that had developed in an unbroken sequence from the time of the Bible down to the days of Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody was sure what was out there, but certainly Heaven had to be somewhere and God was clearly above us, so, in a marriage of convenience, God reigned in the unexplored sky. Voyager 1 bears a gold-plated plaque that attempts to describe who and where we are. Sent into the neighborhood where God used to live, Voyager was announcing that we were ready for celestial guests.

Many scientists don’t take seriously the idea that we’ve already been visited. The internet, however, has become a great clearinghouse for those intrigued by extraterrestrial life. I found a website this weekend that had located at least three different life-forms in just one of the Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures. We are lonely without heavily denizens. Stephen Hawking famously warned, a couple years back, that if they’re there, they’re probably not friendly. His paradigm, however, was based on earth psychology. Most of us know how far to trust that!

The fact is, we’ve been beaming our existence into space since the invention of the radio. Our electronic signals are, according to physics, pretty close to eternal. Electromagnetic waves just keep going and going, putting all manner of Energizer bunnies to shame. Long before Voyager 1 reaches the cusp of the solar system, our light and sound show has been announcing that this is where the godless party is and has been for over a century. Voyager 1 is far less than a needle in the cosmic haystack. It is more akin to a molecule or an atom. Will it find God out there? I highly doubt it. Nevertheless, when I went out to get the newspaper before dawn this morning, I spent an extra few moments looking at the stars and wondering.