I was at half price books about a month ago and I found this eye-popping hardcover book called “Superstructures In Space” for just $10. It’s chock full of gorgeous photos taken by spacecraft and of spacecraft, detailing all the major human forays into space. I’ve learned a lot reading it. Chiefly that there are way more space missions going on than I realized. There’s a probe on it’s way to Pluto (it’ll get there in 2015!), and another one inserting into orbit around Mercury in March of next year. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is an ongoing mission that has returned 3 times more data than the last 5 missions to mars COMBINED. It’s mapped mars with a greater resolution than available on Google Earth. The Deep Impact spacecraft was a super sweet mission in which they shot this projectile into an asteroid to observe what kinds of elements would be present in the resulting debris. There’s just a ton of amazing things going on in space that I wasn’t even aware of.
Just as I thought my interest/obsession was plateauing, for Christmas my girl gave me an even more gigantic book (see comparison below; literally GIGANTIC at 17×14 inches!) by called “Cosmos: A Field Guide”. It’s not related to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” in the literal sense (although they do invoke “star stuff”, a well-worn Saganism), but it goes through everything we’ve observed in the universe, from satellites looking at Earth, all the other planets, the outer solar system, Oort Cloud and Kupier Belt, the Milky Way, other galaxies, and the boundaries of what we can see in our universe. The book is pure space porn, filled with breathtaking pictures of every type of celestial body imaginable. The one shown here is the remnants of a supernova. There aren’t really words that convey the size or the grandeur of what’s been discovered out beyond our planet. I’m totally enraptured by these ideas at this moment in life…
So against that backdrop I was reading about the neutrino observatory at the South Pole. As silly as it may sound, the fact that we got a dude down there at the coldest place on the planet, measuring and counting neutrinos hoping to figure out some piece of our universe–it gives me hope that humans might be able to make it. These are the biggest questions for us to answer: what is the universe made of, how did it form, can we trace its lineage? In the words of Carl:
What he’s getting at is the fact that these questions go beyond nations, races, generations, or any other divisions among us. And our quest to answer them is tied inseparably to technology that will allow human civilization to make an ultimately essential leap–spreading to other worlds. The universe is unfathomably vast and we humans, despite all our progress, are still at a most infantile age. Whether we end up destroyed by nuclear weapons, avian flu, asteroids, or the greenhouse effect, one way or another Earth isn’t going to be safe forever. Our ability to get out there (and get out there fast!), I believe is going to be THE pivot point on whether the genus “homo” ends with “sapiens”, or lives on to continue further.
A thought that keeps running through my mind is “we live in a primitive time”. I imagine a far away age where our distant descendants roam the galaxy in search of resources to mine, lifeforms to chronicle and trade with, picturesque worlds to settle upon, and maybe sightseeing by watching stars being born in nearby nebula. These are the actions of an advanced civilization. By comparison, we are living in far more primitive times than the stone age! We still use rockets to launch spacecraft. Rockets! How un-elegant. The knowledge that there are other galaxies besides our own is less than a century old. That fact astounds me. What utter ignorance we have begun to climb from. The idea of an earth-centric universe seems embarrassingly laughable. Like a little kid who thinks he knows how babies are made; “when the man pees inside the woman”. Hahahaha, how naïve and clueless we were!
I suspect that even such ideas as popular today as “dark matter” will one day be as antiquated as the concepts of ether or the crystalline spheres of the geocentric model. Our galaxy-traversing descendants will look back through the history books and chuckle about what ideas once passed as science. But that is the beauty of science–it is always refining itself, self-correcting, and disowning the baggage that no longer applies. The neutrino observatory is an awesome step in refining our search for matter, understanding cosmic ray sources, and general surveying of the universe. No doubt it will place us one step closer to the answers to those ‘big questions’. How big of a step, only time can tell!