What would it mean to unlock the mysteries of both the visible and invisible dark night skies? In Matthew Bothwell’s article Monsters in the Dark, the Cambridge astronomer eloquently and patiently explains the invisible monster galaxies uncovered by the Hubble Space Craft’s long-exposure images. Relying on infrared light exposures, the new imagery penetrates the cosmic dust barriers to reveal in his words: a “vibrant cosmic powerhouses in the distant Universe” engaged in active star-making.
Bothwell admits that we don’t know why these massive galaxies even exist. The spiritual-cosmological questions that follow could sound like these: “What forces bring them into existence?” “Why do they die?” and most profoundly, “Why, or what purpose do they serve?” This busy star-nursery also fosters questions about our own existence back here on Earth and to what degree are we alone in the universe.
The answers about the location of these distant galaxies leads come in the form of jaw-dropping numbers. First, the Hubble image is focused on only a small sliver of the sky, one thirty-two millionth of what is visible. And that teeny tiny sample includes approximately 5,500 galaxies, residing 24 billion light-years away. One wonders with so many suns, if distant Aliens are looking back at us. Second, given the speed of light, it means the photograph becomes a time-traveling artifact, from over 13 billion years ago, revealing the edge of the Big Bang. Now exhale.
Answering some of the larger questions will require new technology. Bothwell lists two examples: James Webb Space Telescope and the futuristic Square Kilometer. They won’t begin scanning the skies until 2020. Herein lies a karmic irony, because new answers may coincide the beginning of Trump’s anti-science second term. Let that sink in…just don’t tell the Aliens.
The Deep Space Invite Questions About Ourselves
Personally, the image beamed back upon the current stage of world events drives me to conclusions not about space, but rather our species and our fate. We can ask parallel questions about our own origins and destiny, For example we might ask, “What brought us into existence?” “Why do human civilizations rise and fall, right before our very eyes?” And most profoundly, “What purpose or destiny do homo sapiens serve in the larger constellation of time?”
UfOlogists claim aliens are constantly visiting us. Who can possibly challenge their assertions? We know that even if that is true, we must still ask, “Why have they never formally made themselves known to us?” Heck, even visitors to a zoo will attempt to interact with the animals on display (sometimes introducing themselves, or trying to feed or talk to them).
Carl Sagan and others offered us a profound truth when they stated that we are all made of star-stuff from the cosmos. And deep-inhaling-awe occurs once you realize that our form of matter has evolved a consciousness and self-awareness! We are toolmakers who can name and study our own brains. The telescopes we build are like magic wands, conjuring up the unbelievable.
And yet, we really don’t know how alone or how unique we are in this infinite universe. Given the utter brevity of our existence, and the great distances and time separating us from other suns and possible earth-like planets; we remain in the end truly alone.
As life on planet Earth grows messy, more violent, less cooperative; we see the great path of evolution reversing itself. Rather than growing more cooperative, rather than multiplying our native talents by power of our diversity, we instead build walls out of concrete, tariffs, fear, and hate. As we increase our store of missiles, the same pre-conditions for earlier world wars are brought back to “life.” And as we embark on this clueless, self-destructive path, we may erase all traces of our existence.
Some argue our best hope comes from flinging explorers towards the Moon or even Mars. They argue how Mars could host a frontier colony that could become a refuge for people fleeing Earth. The American William historian Appleman Williams wrote an insightful—and now forgotten—book, The Great Evasion. He compared the escapist mentality of American frontiersman to 1960s space agencies. Unable to face the failure to resolve problems at home, they both flee to a new frontier.
But, many of us know deep down that a Martian as a refuge is and empty promise. The truth is that Entrepreneurs in the US, Russia, and China view outer space as potential colonies where they can harvest great wealth that increases their power and domination amidst the scarcities on Earth. Simultaneously they embark on harvesting minerals in our melting polar regions, while ignoring the potent symbol of climate change. Their merry destruction our planet disrupts markets and leaves chaos in their wake. Who will be left to buy Polar, Lunar or Martian gold dust? Exporting these outlooks to Mars or the Moon will not allow use to escape our worst selves. Rather we’ll end up coming face-to-face with ourselves on a more desolate planet.
Does this mean homo sapiens are not endowed with enough intelligence to curb their self-destructive appetites? Does it mean that our forms of conscious and self-aware matter are at best an incomplete and now unsuccessful experiment?
While conquering Caesar boasted Veni Vidi Vinci (I came, I saw, I conquered). This phrase revealed an outsized ego dominated by small thinking. Now the time is ripe to adopt a modified slogan: Veni Vidi Et Mortem Sibi (I came, I saw, I destroyed myself)
What Goes In A Time Capsule For Aliens to See?
If a species dies in the solar system and no one hears it’s final squeak, did it really exist? During many previous challenging transition moments we think about what is changing, what will endure, and how we hope to be remembered in the future. This leads to imagining using a time capsule to insure we are not forgotten. And if we are thinking beyond this moment, into deep space, then our audience becomes aliens.
I now suggest shifting our gaze away from escaping to Mars or the Moon, and refocus instead on a time capsule. Ah, but what should we put in it? In absurdist times it is pointless to include rational sayings or samples of our tool making, such as engineering and scientific artifacts. An empty planet will speak no louder than the Bibles, Torahs, and Korans sitting atop a rubble pile in the Middle East.
If I were king I’d stuff the time capsule with something artful, symbolic, or poetic. I’d choose a poem in the heroic fatalistic style found in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The first poem would be Richard Le Gallienne’s composite translation. I think it will offer insight into our thinking as we pursue our species-suicidal course.
Lost to a world in which I crave no part,
I sit alone and listen to my heart,
Pleased with my little corner of the earth,
Glad that I came–not sorry to depart.
Next would come Hazhir Teimourian’s translation about the continuity of existence. This might offer a ray of hope to alien readers.
This Circle in which we ebb and we flow,
Neither beginning, nor an end does know.
The Riddle stands as posed long ago:
Where do we come from? Where do we go?
To further explain our absence from the planet, I toss in my own 210th quatrain.
Our brain evolved with rare distinction,
Then created tools for our own extinction,
Evolving backwards in blind suspicion,
Ending as heaven’s flawed contradiction.
My next quatrain illustrates how some of us made peace with the madness.
When i can forgive the world of all its sins
Maybe then ill find my way back again.
Still loving and laughing (even when shadows fall)
We’ll still toast moments we cannot win.
And to point towards a future, different than our own, I’d end with Fitzgerald’s interpreted quatrain.
Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire
Finally, to put all earthly life in its proper perspective I’d end with my poem inspired by Matthew Bothwell essay.
Exploring the skies with infrared scope,
our own insignificance shrinks remote.
How can we celebrate our sliver of time?
Can we still dance upon our flimsy tightrope?
# # #
References, of a sort…
My photomontage was developed from Pioneer Spacecraft plaque from 1972 and the Hubble_ultra_deep_field_high_rez_edit images from 2012.
Monsters in the dark essay by Mathew Bothwell can be found at AEON magazine at: