The mysteries of the heavens have fascinated us since we first looked up in both awe and exasperation into the incomprehensible vastness of space and wondered – about tomorrow, our existence, the weather, and our crops.
Life, in other words on the treadmill that is planet earth, the only home we have, will have, and ever have had. You can only know what you have experienced and order it accordingly into measurable units of time. We keep a record of our existence to remind us that we have travelled this way before. That is called history.
We just don't know, aside from all the clever expostulations made by scientists, philosophers, socialists, dialectical materialists, deconstructionists, clerics, and authorities on this and that we invest our trust in; modern day soothsayers and guides to the universe, and in some messianic instances, to some local god near you.
The Transit of Venus was seen last week, for the last time in our lifetime. The event comes in pairs separated by eight years – and this was the second occurrence. The next transit occurs in December, 2117. There was much publicity about watching the small black disk that is Venus hop across the face of the sun like a flea on a hot plate. Studying this event, we are told, will help us determine the atmosphere of exo-planets as they are discovered and so allow physicists and cosmologists to read the spectra of gases against the infernal and gaseous backdrop of its companion star.
Is that someone breathing? Does this signature indicate oxygen? We are not alone! But we are alone. There is nothing else out there that might be called sentient life, just endless matter in a vast accelerating laboratory of duplication for its own sake, signalling nothing beyond the eternal interaction and dance of phenomena.
As the American poet Jack Gilbert said, "No habitat where the brain can recognise itself. / No pertinence for the heart. / Helpless duplication." And if there is some God, I suspect he has packed up and left the universe in utter disgust at our homicidal antics.
Looking to the future is as valid as looking back to the past. It depends on how far you are away from the object you are viewing. In 1990 astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that Nasa get Voyager I to take one last picture of planet earth, before it finally departed the solar system. The result was a picture that came to be called The Pale Blue Dot that Sagan used as title of his book: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of The Human Future in Space. That picture showed a barely discernable dust mote caught in a beam of light. Our home.
It was taken at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from earth. The farthest distance so far of any picture taken of this planet by a man-made object. The sheer fragility of the faint image, a mere pixel in one small quadrant of space. Sagan reminds us of how humbling such an image must make us feel, for all our outlandish and otherworldly ambitions, wars, inflated ideals, aspirations, grotesque and delusional attempts at immortality, sifted through the sieve of history which is little more than a graveyard of lost causes and failed civilisations.
"Look again at that dot," he says. "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 every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
Yet for all that, we have achieved wonderful things in arts and sciences, borne out of the insistent and unavoidable knowledge of our own mortality, summed up in the statement that every living creature on planet earth at this very moment will be dead within a hundred years. Reality is more satisfying than delusion. The invention of religion to explain away what was in nature inexplicable, to our ancestors, gave us objects of exquisite beauty. It also gave us weapons of war. We fashioned images and paid homage to a pantheon of gods and offered libations before wars, plantings, and harvests.
Scientists and other "official" theorists who have tried to explain the cosmos and our place in it, or to explain our existence by glib mathematical models, both for and against some God in the universe, have both adherents and detractors. We cannot know everything therefore cannot fully explain the workings of the universe or our place in it, one group says. While another says, science and physics is the ultimate answer to everything and why we are here, how we came to evolve.
One thing is certain though: we will continue to discover, we are hard-wired for conflict, delusion is as much a reality for us as not, great art will evolve and monumental discoveries be made; and so we will further promote humankind to an empty cosmos. It will all, however, only happen on this one pale blue dot in a small quadrant of the Milky Way. Stephen Oliver is the author of 16 volumes of poetry. He lived in Australia for 20 years and now resides in the King Country. He works as a freelance writer and voice artist.
- Waikato Times