(Phil here, with a note about this post, a “Counterpoint” column I wrote last summer, in hopes, as always, it might add perhaps a drop of elder wisdom to the cup. Imagine the impact, if billions of people one way or another expressed good, hopeful thoughts about being human. The news of the world is not getting any better is it? So I thought I would post it again today, sort of send it off into Cyber space and see what happens. It’s a long shot, I know; but anything is possible.)
We are a remarkable species indeed, to be able to conceive of and build and send a spacecraft hurtling billions of kilometres into space, to the furthest reaches of the solar system where the dwarf planet, Pluto, and its largest moon, Charon, revolve around each other in wobbly orbits.
And then, as NASA’s New Horizons probe sped past the two, to be able to send back to Earth photos of remarkable detail and clarity of what they look like, including the strange, heart-shaped feature on Pluto itself – what a remarkable, what an astounding achievement that is as well.
It has taken the New Horizons spacecraft 10 years, traveling at a speed of 50,000 km/hr, to reach the vicinity of Pluto and Charon. You do the math. That’s a long, long way to go.
Most of us don’t have the extremely diverse, collective, scientific expertise required to make such a thing happen. But isn’t it characteristic of human beings to have a wide variety of talents? Isn’t it possible that’s a big part of what makes us who we are after all?
Some of us made music that helped nourish the spirit in good times and bad, and otherwise created works of art that broadened the soul, and the mind, shed light on the road ahead, and helped create an atmosphere in which new ideas were encouraged and fostered.
Some of us hunted and fished and gathered, learned the art of tool-making and tool-use from our elders, and passed that knowledge on to future generations. And so we fed our families and our communities.
Some of us were gifted workers. We could lift the heaviest loads, carry them for great distances, and go all day if necessary. We were driven by an intense desire to use our physical strength to help others and serve the needs of our communities.
Some of us were dreamers. Our imaginations took flight. And when we came back down to earth, the others gathered with us around the fire to listen to the wonderful, inspiring stories we told about where we might go, and what we might achieve.
Some of us were artists who depicted our accomplishments, our triumphs and our defeats, but also gave us a sense of our strength and where the future could take us. Others had a talent to express the human spirit in special rythmic sound and movement. It gave us pleasure and joy, and we all joined in.
And some of us were organizers. Especially in times of crisis or urgent need we knew how to devise a plan to quickly marshal the resources of the community and suggest how best to use our collective talents. But we did not seize power for its own sake. Our instincts told us that would be dangerous.
Above all we understood the absolute importance of working together, of respecting and encouraging diverse talents and abilities. We were patient when some people struggled to find their role. We tried to help them find their path, to nurture them in spirit, as well as body.
I daresay all that is “bred in the bone” of the creatures we are. So, yes, being able to send a spacecraft into the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond is indeed a human achievement, of the many, and not just the few.
It’s reason for all of us to be proud of being human, regardless of nationality. We’re all members of the human family, after all.
The New Horizons probe follows Voyagers 1 and 2, both launched by NASA in 1977 to explore the outer solar system, including the so-called “gas planets” Jupiter and Saturn. Voyager 2 also passed by Uranus and Neptune. Both Voyagers are still transmitting data back to Earth as their voyages of discovery continue. Voyager 1 is in interstellar space, beyond the solar system. Voyager 2 is in the heliosheath, the outermost layer of the solar system where our sun’s “solar winds” meet interstellar space, according to NASA’s Voyager website.
Both Voyagers carry a “Golden Record,” a gold-plated, audio-visual disc that includes photos of the Earth and it’s life-forms, spoken greetings, and “Sounds of the Earth,” including whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore and a diverse collection of world music, ranging from Mozart, to the great blues singer-guitarist Blind Willie Johnson performing his haunting “Dark is the Night,” and the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould playing Bach.
The “Golden Record” is aboard the Voyagers in case either spacecraft is ever found by intelligent beings from another planet beyond our solar system. Obviously, it’s designed to convey a sense of the wonders of our planetary home, as well, I think, of the diversity and cultural richness of human life.
News this past week that the New Horizons probe had reached Pluto serves as a reminder of how much human beings are capable of achieving. Surely, if we can do that, we can do just about anything. Like, save ourselves and the world, especially considering the times in which we now live are likely as challenging as anything humanity has faced since the first few hundred of us, facing a huge environmental crisis of some sort perhaps, somehow found a way to survive, rather than perish,
And yet now, several million years since then, a spirit of intolerance is tearing humanity apart. We no longer work together for the common good, respecting diversity in our midst, respecting our mutual humanity.
The Voyager spacecrafts will lose their power in a few years, and go silent. But if, perhaps a few years from now, or a million, some intelligent beings chance upon one or the other and play its “Golden Record” they will marvel at what wonderfully, intelligent creatures we must be. Maybe they’ll come looking for us. Wouldn’t you, to meet such extraordinary beings, and learn from them?
What will they find, I wonder, when they get here?
Originally published in The Sun Times in July, 2015.