Stepping into Space

Our “pale blue dot”. Picture: NASA/JPL

We’re about to cross the Final Frontier and enter Outer Space. This week, give or take a month or two, a man-made object will leave our Solar System for the first time. Voyager 1 is already 11.2 billion miles from Earth and still going, long after it was predicted to run out of life.

Voyager 1 set out from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1977, powered by computers with 80 kilobytes of memory. It flew past Jupiter in March 1979 and Saturn in November 1980, sending phenomonal pictures of the planet’s famous rings. In 1990, 4 billion miles from earth, it used some of its remaining power to turn its cameras back towards Earth and take this unique picture showing just how tiny our world is in the vastness of the solar system.

Scientists expected to lose contact with Voyager 1 and its sister ship Voyager 2 after this picture, but despite weakening signal power, information continues to be sent from both Voyagers daily, further improving our knowledge of the solar system. Roughly now (no one knows exactly when this historic event will happen, but within months for sure) Voyager 1 will leave the outer edge of the heliosphere. From there it could move on through Space for a very long time. If it doesn’t collide with anything (and there’s not much out there to hit), in about 40,000 years it should be within 9.3 trillion miles of a star known as AC+79 3888. Voyager 2 is just 9.2 billion miles from Earth, but is also on a trajectory out into Deep Space.

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Dr Carl Sagan wrote a brilliant piece which serves as an extended caption to Voyager 1’s last photo. I’ve reproduced it here – moving words to accompany an incredible picture:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

If a picture’s worth a thousand words …

… what are 3.5 trillion photos worth? That’s how many photos have ever been taken, according to photo archive site 1000Memories. The company estimates that Facebook currently houses over 140 billion photos uploaded by users, with 6 billion per month being uploaded. The typical digital camera owner takes about 150 digital images per year and potentially uploads 20 percent of those to Facebook.

Of course the real driver of our snap-happiness is the convenience of digital. It currently takes two minutes for people to collectively snap the same amount of photos that were captured during the entire nineteenth century. Ten per cent of those 3.5 trillion photos were taken in the last 12 months alone. Analog photography hit its peak in the year 2000 when 85 billion physical photos were captured, a figure that translates to 2,500 photos per second.

The picture above is the first photo ever taken to feature a human being. The image shows a busy street, but due to exposure time of more than ten minutes, the traffic was moving too much to appear. The exception is the man at the bottom left getting his boots polished, who stood still long enough to show on the picture.

But are we becoming better photographers? Ealier this year I blogged about the greatest photo ever taken – and it was by a machine rather than a human being. Undoubtedly there are far more people who describe themselves as keen on photography now – what digital does allow us to do is to fail repeatedly until we get it right. I am reminded of a saying from Aristotle which points to repeated practice leading to excellence – in time we will all become better snappers.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

“In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”

Tolstoy’s words came to me today after a discussion with a colleague about the degree to which the social media world had affected live events. His argument (my colleague’s, not Tolstoy) was that young people in particular now considered videoing, photographing and tweeting about live events as part of the experience. My argument was that we have become so pre-occupied with recording the moment that we seem less and less able to live the moment.

Most of the live music I now watch, I find myself surrounded by people filming the stage on their smartphone. Even while the band’s performing, they’re manically tweeting about being there. Now I am not averse to Twitter and I am writing this as a blog post, so I am certainly not going to undermine social media as a valuable medium. But have we become so obsessed with sharing the moment that we forget to just be in the moment?

Surely watching a band live has to be about losing yourself in the music, about admiring the mastery of the musicians, or singing along to the songs that form the soundtrack to your life? If you’re concentrating on telling people that you’re there, or sharing with friends what they’re missing, aren’t you really missing the point?

Shared experience is often a better experience. But there’s a deep connection at play when you’re with friends, all dancing to the same song. I don’t feel the same depth when I am posting a video on YouTube – I just feel distracted by the mechanics of sharing. Have we confused shared experience with sharing the experience? Should we, as Tolstoy suggested, stop for a moment worrying about sharing and just look around, just live in the moment?

The greatest photo ever

Our "pale blue dot". Picture: NASA/JPL

Twenty-one years ago, the greatest photo ever was taken. In one last gasp before we lost contact with it, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, 4 billion miles from earth, turned its cameras back towards earth and showed just how tiny our world is in the vastness of the solar system.

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Dr Carl Sagan wrote a brilliant piece which serves as an extended caption to the picture. I’ve reproduced it here – beautiful words to accompany a wonderful picture:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”