Every so often I spot in the news two old friends that I’ve never met. How and where I hear about them changes over the years, but the captivation at their mention never subsides. I’ll never meet them in person; nobody born after 1977 ever can, because these friends are racing through space, away from the Earth, on a deliberately one-way trip.
Their names are Voyager 1 and 2, the space probes launched in 1977. Their mission is epic: to visit the planets of our solar system, to breach the point in space where interstellar space begins, and to carry word of our presence well beyond our existence.
Children of Earth
Space has always been a big deal for me, with rockets and stars in my eyes since before I can remember. My parents will vouch for this. Any mention of astronomy or space travel in the news held me entirely, and I’d demand total silence from the family until the piece played out. Clipped newspaper columns and pilfered special inserts from National Geographic magazines were read and re-read until surpassed by books and magazines.
In those years a mention of the Voyager probes was never far away. Across weeks and months of normal life, they’d drop back into media consciousness with dispatches that transformed bright specks of light in the sky into full-blown worlds.
In ’81 the University of Waterloo, where I’d eventually attend, featured a collection of photos sent back from the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn. Though completely unfamiliar with the university, she drove me there on a cloudy Wednesday and walked with me from point to point for over an hour, looking for the Earth Sciences building. We found it, the doors open and the hallways kind of dark. But there were the images, framed under glass and in a brilliant colour that newspapers couldn’t show and the TV wouldn’t show for more than a couple seconds. We were there for at least a half hour, maybe more.
Mom was curious for a bit but her interest passed quickly. Nonetheless, she stood and waited while I couldn’t stop looking. She didn’t hurry me in the slightest, content to let me take in as much as I could. We got some lunch, and as we drove home I talked about Saturn and Jupiter all the way. She just listened. That’s the kind of person she is. What Voyager 1 and 2 sent back created a bridge between childhood wonder and a mother’s love and let them stand together in a single, irreplaceable moment. But that’s what great things do, they spin off profound moments as casually as we leave behind footprints.
When I entered my teenage years and began to pull away from the familiarity of home and parents, as teenagers do, Voyagers 1 and 2 parted paths. Voyager 1 broke away from the lines that trace the planets’ paths in diagrams, to race for the edge of the solar system. With its twin poised to take the prize of the first human-made object to go into interstellar space, Voyager 2 settled into a slower path that would send it close to Uranus and Neptune. For taking that route, Voyager 2 has always been my favourite of the twins.
While I listened to 80s rock and worried about my hair, the probes hurtled outward at some 17km/second, unblinking and constant in the midst of a great lonliness, punctuated by the almost unimaginable spectacle of massive planets.
I don’t remember much of the Uranus encounter, but my memory of the 1989 Voyager 2 encounter with Neptune is as sharp as can be. The images were not only better, but our local cable provider dedicated an upper channel to a live feed of images and marginal data readings from NASA. I sat with friends in a basement for hours on end, hiding from summer heat and watching and talking about being among the first human eyes to see a titan of the sky in such detail. We were standing on the fine-tipped point of an unlikely present, seeing what thousands of generations before us could have only wondered. How could the future not feel like everything happening all at once, with still greater things to come.
And Then, Fifteen Years Went By
With the planets behind them, both Voyagers are pushing into interstellar space. In 2005, September 23 to be exact, Voyager 1 did just that, and became our first footstep into the greater Milky Way. Looking back, they had changed the way we saw our part of the galaxy, transforming centuries of human wonder into detail visions that are now iconic.
Mere steps into a vast unknown, their reports are fewer and the science they describe more abstract. Consequently the coverage of those reports is as likely to be about the planning and care that NASA engineers devote to maintaining the probes as it is about the discoveries.
Meticulous Love Against Absurdist Odds
The voices of Voyagers 1 and 2 get a bit weaker every year, and so we here on Earth learn to listen better. Indeed, everything done here for the probes must be done better all the time. Since the probes left Earth, our technologies have advanced considerably, but theirs is all but locked into what was available in the 1960s.
Nothing is frivolous to the NASA engineers who care for them. Every bit of fuel spent on maneuvers, every turn of the camera, every byte of software code sent is meticulously decided.
It’s hard for us to really grasp this. We invoke hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure to pay for items less than a couple bucks with a debit card or to joke around by text message. If a call is dropped or a program crashes, we just try again. Every attempt is almost disposable. Not so for the Voyager teams.
When problems occur, engineers spend great energy composing a solution, then send the instructions on invisible waves. They wait for more than a day to get a response. The travel time for a one-way message to Voyager is now about 13hrs. Can there be anything in science that is closer than this to prayer?
Maybe. The Voyager Golden Records are like prayers, devotions sent out without any promise of being heard. They are gold-plated phonograph records with content curated by Carl Sagan, carrying images and audio samples for any intelligent being who might find them. The record cover has an etched diagram that shows the location of Earth relative to various pulsars, pictographic instructions for how to play the album, and an atomic basis for timekeeping. All the pieces are there, waiting for an intelligence just close enough to ours to perceive them as something to be deciphered, and strong enough to do the work of deciphering.
But those records will last, quite likely longer than humanity itself.
The record is constructed of gold-plated copper. There is an ultra-pure sample of the isotope uranium-238 electroplated on the record’s cover. Uranium-238 has a half-life of 4.51 billion years.
It would be beyond the odds for any alien to find the Voyager records, moreso to decode them, and even moreso to have a brain structure that perceives things close enough to the way we do so that the information they contain would be sensible. It’s unlikely that any alien intelligence would hear music as we do, though the sounds from nature may be appreciable to them. Sagan must have known this. As the ultimate Hail Mary throw, the brain waves of his wife were added to the data on the records. Maybe aliens would be able to reconstuct enough of a brain simulation to model the perceptions that we are trying to convey.
It’s a ridiculously unlikely scenario but we somehow know it’s worth trying.
And with each passing year, Voyager’s age shows a little bit more. Voyager 2 recently started to send back gibberish data, as if it’s fallen into a bout of senility. Its caretakers, 13 billion kilometers away, will do what they always do. Study the problem, craft a solution, then send it out on invisible waves. Ingenuity from afar, with not a little bit of hope. Eventually, neither Voyager will have the energy to do anything, its batteries too spent to operate any instrument by 2025. Even after that point, it will carry the dreams that sent it aloft.
The Best of Us
As of yesterday, Voyager 1 is 15 hrs 37 mins 08 secs of light-travel time from Earth, about 17 billion miles away. I learned this from Twitter, something not imagined built on something barely invented when Voyager left Earth. Only government and industry could afford a computer of the sort that Voyager had when it left us, and now my pocket phone could simulate hundreds of those computers at the same time. Across that distance, the connection with my childhood friends can overwhelm me.
What voyager embodies is so much of the best of us.
- Innovation with precious few resources
- Working together for an idea that knows no politics
- Naive and childlike curiosity and hope, even against absurdly unlikely odds
- The meticulous love and care for something that cannot love us back
- The capacity to inspire across time and space without ever needing recognition or reward
For only a little less time than I’ve been on Earth, they’ve been out there for us all.
All images from NASA and Wikipedia
Who hasn’t been softly haunted at some point by the distance between us, as people who live together but dwell in very personal experiences of the world? It’s almost commonplace to say we’re more separated than ever, driven apart by forces of technology, corporatism and some vague sense of lost societal consciousness.
If I could believe life is linear, I might buy into the idea that we’re only ever drifting apart. But life mocks the straight line, preferring instead a more cyclical way, and those cycles create the tissue that connects the personal with the interpersonal. Like a circle always turning inward but never getting closer to the centre, we’re always coming together and flying apart, always in decline and always growing.
I think we acknowledge this reality through rituals, regular celebrations that draw us out of the personal and into a togetherness that is the grain of human existence. These rituals renew us by making a mark in the unbroken circle that we can look both forward and back to. Rituals like birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays and yes, even the fiscal year. I’ve always had a hard time finding real enthusiasm for these events, feeling aloof without knowing why, but about ten years ago I found the one that worked for me: the Illuminares.
A homegrown Vancouver event, the Illuminares is also known as the Lantern Festival at Trout Lake, and is produced by the Public Dreams Society. It’s a celebration of light in the days that we have the most, the summer. It’s produced almost entirely through volunteer work, a handful of grants and grassroots fundraising. It takes minimal resources and purely human creativity and enthusiasm to transform them into displays that embody and transcend with ease our best aspects.
It happens without gated entries, heavy-handed security and pat-downs; it welcomes all freely and gives without ego; it happens with all kinds of intoxication and a mild chaos that never feels like danger or disorder; it attracts generosity without the demand for corporate logo displays and naming rights; it retains and grows its identity without asserting ownership of cultural artifacts; it’s everything that modern community events can and should be, but usually aren’t.
And most of all, it renews the connection between who we are today and who we’ll be next time around, between our private perspectives and the totality of lives lived together in the city. Public Dreams’ Managing and Artistic Director, Pamela McKeown, spoke recently at the Wosk Centre and quoted Joseph Campbell from an interview with Bill Moyers on the nature of our dreams:
Bill Moyers: Why is a myth different from a dream?
Joseph Campbell: Oh, because a dream is a personl experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you.
Bill Moyers: So if my priavte dreams are in accord with the public mythology, I’m more likely to live healthily in that society. But if my private dreams are out of step with the public -
Joseph Campbell: – you’ll be in trouble. If you’re forced to live in that system, you’ll be a neurotic.
Bill Moyers: But aren’t there visionaries and even leaders and heroes close to the edge of neuroticism?
Joseph Campbell: Yes, there are.
Bill Moyers: How do you explain that?
Joseph Campbell: They’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of orginal experience. Orginal experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off from the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience – that is the hero’s deed.
There’s lots to unpack there, but for myself it’s the connection between the dreams of a community and of the person, and the value in both harmony and difference. The intangible but undeniable reality that the Illuminaries and other Public Dreams events create is one where people find renewal with the community and between their current selves and the people they dare to dream they can be.
This year marks the first where I’ll be not only enjoying Illuminaries as a volunteer and attendee, but also as a new member of the Society’s board of directors. It’s an impressive group to join, and the entire society has been heroic in keeping itself together through a few years of fiscal hardship.
Are you in Vancouver on the night of Saturday July 25th? Then join us at the Illuminares and renew the dreams that lie quiet within the trials and routines of daily life, waiting for the light that opens them up to let you live as the person you know you are with the people you know must be out there. If you can also donate just $5 to any of the buskers or sales booths or at the Wishing Pond, you’ll not only help this year by being joining in, but helping make next year happen as well.
Some additional links:
- To volunteer, Ziyian at firstname.lastname@example.org
- To see pictures of the Illuminares, you can check out my own from 2005 or the illuminares tag on flickr. If you go and have photos to share, please tag them with ‘public dreams society’ and ‘illuminares’.
- To make a financial donation in absentia, use our CanadaHelps.org page. Or become a member for just $15 annually. Your most important donation is coming out and joining in, but the money helps a lot, too.
I live pretty far away from where I grew up, and make at least one trip a year back to the family home. It’s in southwestern Ontario, a predominantly Mennonite farming community that’s not far from towns and cities. For me, these visits always involve spending time in a strange kind of identity interzone. Unconsciously or not, parents keep looking for the children they raised, and we keep trying to make them recognize us as the adults we’ve become. In these conditions, old patterns re-emerge with ease.
My old room is an office, but still smells right. My brother’s old room is the guest room. The house is the one I grew up in: the water pressure in the shower is still terrible, and the hallway still creaks in spots I’d learned to pad around in the dark of post-curfew hours. But it’s also changed in ways I wish it hadn’t: I keep opening the wrong drawer for the cutlery. The room that Dad added more than 10 years ago still feels out of place and temporary. I’m always a bit surprised by it, as if I thought it had only been dreamed.
We’re familiar strangers to each other, the house, my parents and me. And that’s the paradox of home, that we return to it looking for things that can’t be there, because they’re dependent on us never changing.
The other day, Kate Trgovac posted, among her regular links to useful and interesting resources for product managers and marketers, a sweet note to the Manifesto:
Todd Sieling, product manager extraordinaire – here in Vangroovy, has taken up his “slow blogging” project again. A response to the hyper-immediacy of Twitter. Worth a read and a ponder.
Reading that post on Kate’s blog is like having one of your favourite musicians stop mid-song to say they heard your demo tape and really liked it. Kate invoked Twitter as a sort of antithesis of Slow Blogging, and it’s not uncommon for Twitter to come up when talking about the culture of fast, which seems to teeter on a point between ethos and pathos in online behaviour and expectation.
Twitter, at its core a stream of 140-character posts that members use to ostensibly answer the question What are you doing?, does seem at first the worst kind of snack food for the brain. The most common objection I hear when describing it to a doubter is Why do I want to know when someone is going to the bathroom? or some variant. I’m not sure why this comes to people’s minds so often, but there must be multiple psychology and cultural criticism papers just waiting to be written to explain that reaction.
Despite those impressions, I think Twitter is a fantastic service, and I use it nearly every day. However, I do so in a fairly specific way, making the most of both the required and optional constraints that Twitter provides. These constraints are critical to not feeling overwhelmed by the speed and volume of information that Twitter can deliver. The remainder of this post is about that combination of constraints, and how I think they relate to Slow Blogging and blogs overall.