by Shane L. Larson
The surface of the Earth is the shore of the Cosmic Ocean. What a poetic and evocative turn of phrase. Lying in the grass of my backyard under the cathedral of night, the diaphanous arch of the Milky Way soaring overhead, it’s easy to understand the comparison to the sea. The Cosmos, like Earth’s mighty oceans, is a vast, unexplored expanse filled with virtually nothing as far as the eye can see. Here and there, a distant archipelago of light: a star, a nebula, a drifting planet, or far away galaxy. But all the space in between is the infinite dark.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and often had the chance to walk up and down the lonely, rocky beaches of Oregon and Washington. During the day, you can see the distant horizon line, a boundary between sky and sea. But at night the ocean stretches to the horizon where it merges seamlessly with the sky. The sky and the ocean are almost inseparable, as early legend, myth, and speculation suggested. While we know better today, the metaphor of the sky as an unfathomably deep ocean is not an untenable idea. Both the sea and the Cosmos challenge the limits of our understanding; both are inhospitable to life forms as frail as we; and both have deep, hidden mysteries that we have yet to discover. Perhaps most importantly, both inspire a visceral and compelling urge to explore. Coupled with a sense of awe is a tickle of imagination intertwined with a vaguely unsettling desire to cast our fortunes into both those deep seas. It makes for heady daydreams, and an aching longing to leave the safe shores of Earth and go exploring. With feet firmly on the pebbles of a Pacific seashore, one is filled with a deep sense of sehnsucht — an inconsolable longing in the human heart for a far, familiar, non-earthly land one can identify as one’s home.Like many young boys, I was introduced to the inextricable linkage of the sea and exploration through early exposure to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” My dreams of the ocean were seen through the lens of young Jim Hawkins’ unlikely journey from the common room of the Admiral Benbow Inn to the Caribbean aboard the Hispaniola. While my early imaginings of ocean voyages were of treasure, desert islands, and eye-patched pirates, the lure of adventure at sea was soon supplanted by a new ship and a new hero. A ship named Calypso, captained by a thoroughly modern explorer in a red knit cap — Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Captivated by The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, I was suddenly exposed to a world that I hadn’t known existed — a world completely alien compared to everything I had known up to that point, but one that was clearly and inextricably linked to all other life on Earth. It was the first time in all my daydreams of adventure that I was exposed to the idea that science was part of the adventure. Cousteau and his motley crew were not brigands and buccaneers. They were sailing the seas in search of treasure, but it was not a glittering hoard of gold they sought — it was the knowledge of The Silent World. The exploration, the discovery, was the adventure. Being an aficionado of Cousteau’s adventures taught me, for the first time, of the powerful role technology plays in exploration. Before the advent of boats, no one could challenge the distant horizon of the sea. But even after we learned to cross the surface, we were still separated from the depths. The oceans of Earth have long been the Last Frontier for exploration. Even today the surfaces have been mapped extensively, but the depths are still relatively unknown. They are hard to map, hard to explore, and are an environment wholly hostile to air-breathers like you and I. But technology, in the form of diving vessels, surface-connected diving suits, and scuba gear (invented by Cousteau and his partner, Émile Gagnan in 1943), allows us to challenge the depths, to voyage into realms where no human has tread before. Given enough time and ingenuity, humans discovered how to challenge the seas of Earth.
Then, sometime in the middle of my childhood, as my brain was being filled with images of alien landscapes hidden in the watery depths of the ocean, something extraordinary happened. In July of 1976, a robot explorer from Earth touched down in a far-away desert known as Chryse Planitia — The Plains of Gold. The first picture ever transmitted from the surface of Mars was sent back by Viking 1 in black and white splendor, showing a rocky and pebble-strewn surface. Technology had gone where no person had gone before.Barely 6 weeks later, Viking 2 landed 6700 km away at Utopia Planitia (for some guidance about all the landing sites on Mars, take a look at the Martian Mileage Guide). The date was September 3, 1976, the day before I turned 7 years old. I devoured everything I could find about Viking, likely driving my parents, my teachers, and my school librarians bonkers. I’m sure they all gave a collective sigh of relief when National Geographic published a full spread on Viking in January of 1977, and I fell silent with my nose hovering inches from every picture on every page (my mother never saw that issue again; it’s on my shelf in my library if you want to see it, Ma. 🙂 ).
Viking was only the beginning for me. In 1979, Voyager 1 and 2 plunged through the Jupiter system, and sailed onward to Saturn. They left behind new pictures, new mysteries, and more missing copies of National Geographic at my parents’ home. But by that time, the game was all over. I had heard the siren call of a new adventure — exploring the great ocean of the Cosmos. Liberally seeded by NASA’s great voyages into the shallows of space, escalated by a healthy dose of Star Trek, and firmly cemented by Carl Sagan with the premiere of Cosmos in the fall of 1980, I had fallen in love with the Universe.
It didn’t dawn on me then, but suddenly my heroes weren’t people; they were machines. Machines with names and personalities to be sure: Viking, Voyager, Hubble, Chandra, Cassini, Spirit, Curiosity. Every name, like characters in Treasure Island or divers on The Undersea World, is associated with great tales of adventure and discovery from the distant frontiers of the solar system. Now, many years later, I realize that my heroes were people — they were the scientists and the engineers, who like Cousteau before them, imagined and built machines that made exploring the Cosmos possible. The fact that the machines were built by people was not lost on me, but I never really thought about it then.
But a seed was sown; somewhere the notion that people build the machines of exploration took root, and blossomed into a much larger notion — that I personally could build machines that would allow me to explore the great Cosmic ocean one-on-one, up close and personal. It started innocently enough, building rockets that could launch Lego minifigs (plastic avatars of myself), but it quickly escalated. My life of exploration is filled with telescopes that can show me galaxies millions of light years away; I fly weather balloons that travel to the edge of space bearing cameras and science experiments capable of measuring cosmic radiation; I’ve built submarines, remotely piloted that can dive into the darkness of Earth’s waters; and of course, bigger telescopes to cast my sight deeper into the vast ocean of the Cosmos.In some ways, the metaphor of the sea works with the Cosmos, but in other ways it fails miserably. One way in which it fails miserably is with the sheer size of the Cosmos. Despite being largely unexplored, the oceans of Earth are finite. We’ve mapped their boundaries and we’ve plumbed their greatest depths. Not so with the Cosmic ocean. In space, we’ve ventured only a stones throw from Earth. The farthest humans have been from the surface of the Earth is the Moon. Of the 7 billion people on the planet, only 24 have ever made the journey from the Earth to the Moon; of those 24 only 12 of them walked on the surface.
Beyond the Moon, only robotic explorers have ventured, but every exhilarating discovery is accompanied by new mysteries and questions. Their explorations are woefully incomplete, and new voyages take time because the distances are vast. We’ve grown used to talking about journeying to the Moon, or to Jupiter, as if it is no different than getting on a plane and flying to Chicago or to Brisbane. But getting to the planets is hard, and getting beyond is even harder. Voyager 1 has been outbound from the Sun for 36 years! It is the fastest object ever launched by humans, but it is barely more than 3 times Pluto’s distance from the Sun. Sailing across the deeps of the Cosmic ocean, it will take Voyager two billion years to cross the entire Milky Way galaxy. Sailing to Pluto is little more than splashing around in our own remote and isolated tide pool of the Cosmic ocean.
But I don’t let that bother me. Part of the allure of the sea, and part of the allure of the Cosmos, is that it is incomprehensibly vast. It is the vastness that guarantees the promise of adventure, mystery, and discovery. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the vastness, by the infinite deep of the Cosmos. We sometimes like like to trumpet how small we are, to put humanity in its place, a tiny speck of insignificance, all but lost in the maelstrom of Cosmic evolution. But faced with such awesomeness, with grandeur and beauty and mystery on a virtually incomprehensible scale, we should stand up tall, and scream our song into the Void. Because we have grown beyond our roots as mere specks of Cosmic dust. We have harnessed the laws of Nature, we have understood some of the awesome clockwork of the Universe and used that understanding to enable us to learn even more. And what have we discovered? We’ve discovered that we are the Cosmos, sentient and alive. Small motes of dust, adrift on this small, remote shore of the Cosmic ocean, we are a way, perhaps the only way, for the Cosmos to know itself.
This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here: http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE