This gorgeous video shows you the journey of a photon from the sun (well, the surface of the sun, I imagine – the journey from core to surface of the sun takes far, far, far longer), out into the solar system and all the way past the inner, rocky worlds until it reaches mighty Jupiter, king of the planets, all taken in real time. The speed of light is fast – the fastest thing we know of (so far, not counting possible existence of supralight particles). So fast, as one writer observed, that most civilisations take millennia to realise light even travels at all. But when you move out into the vast distances of space even the speed of light seems tardy by comparison. It’s some eight minutes and twenty seconds just to reach us on Earth, and we’re only the third rock from the sun. “Riding Light” takes us out beyond the terrestrial worlds – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Earth – then on, avoiding the tumbling asteroid belt, until it reaches magnificent Jupiter, some forty five minutes later:
Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.
I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…
The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…
Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.
And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.
And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming. And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.
You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.
This is simply stunning, brief though it is, a timelapse of footage shot of our world rotating below the International Space Station (ISS), all shot in beautifully crisp HD, creating some wonderfully sharp, clear images of our planet from several dozens miles above the atmosphere. Best viewing experience is to select the fullscreen option and just glory in it for a few brief moments…
An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.
Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.
“The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.
Overview is a stunning short film from the Planetary Collective, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the famous “Blue Marble” photograph (taken by Apollo 17, see above) by talking with astronauts about the ‘overview effect’ – the change in perspective many of them experience when they get to do something that all the thousands of years of humans before the 1960s could never do: see the world from space. I’ve been a space geek since I was a very young boy, happy with a NASA costume and toy helmet, box for a ‘spaceship’ and imagination, and I’ve heard a number of astronauts and cosmonauts talk about this experience, about how viewing the world from above the clouds changes their perspective forever on how astonishing our world is, how remarkably beautiful yet fragile, how everything and everyone is interconnected… The imagery is beautiful…
I see that this fab remix of the late and much missed Carl Sagan’s word from Cosmos that has proved popular on YouTube is getting a release as a traditional 7 inch vinyl. Funnily enough a friend sent me some music tracks he came across recently, from Cosmos, which we both remembered watching; it was instant nostalgia for me. As a boy I adored the series; I was already fascinated by astronomy and the exploration of space and this fueled it, as well as introducing me for the first time to Sagan. Years later I’d admire him for speaking out for the importance of scientific research for the sake of research and not simply for commerce, for the value of knowledge over susperstition and the need to take care of our own remarkable world, so different from the other planets we were exploring – he even publicly berated Margaret Thatcher once when she was Prime Minister, scolding her for her lack of support for pure research and environmental awareness, telling her it was shocking that someone who actually had proper scientific training could be so foolish.
Apparently the B side of the single looks like the cover of the famous gold record disc which was placed in the Voyager spacecraft, so that long after they had completed their mission of exploration (which they did so magnificently) and headed out of our solar system and into the deep, cold depths of interstellar space, should they by some remote chance be found by another civilisation they could play them and hear sounds from Planet Earth – greetings in many languages, poetry and snatches of music, which Sagan helped oversee. Carl’s been gone a while now, sadly, but that gold disc is now travelling still, further than any man made object in the entire history of the world has ever travelled, waiting for the day when someone – something,perhaps – finds it and plays it. (via Third Man Records)
And while we’re at it, here’s a short video, the Pale Blue Dot, by Carl. As the aging Voyager reached towards the edge of our solar system he argued for NASA to turn it to face back towards us – no easy task when the vast distance meant even radio signal commands travelling at the speed of light would take some time to reach the craft, then longer for returns, assuming it even worked. But he argued and they did it and the result was ‘the family portrait’, a view of the worlds of our solar system as no-one else in the history of our species had ever seen it, a shot taken from the edge of what we know from a little machine about to cross that boundary, a parting gift from one of the great missions of exploration. And in that picture a tiny dot, a blue dot taking up even less than one pixel. That dot being the Earth. Everything we’ve ever known, every person who has ever loved and lived, every cat, every dog, every Triceratops, every dolphin, every fern, every bush, every fish, every work of art, all contained inside that tiny, tiny dot… Sagan had that wonderful gift of enthusiasm and the ability to communicate the sense of wonder to all, a great spokesman for science.
JPL and the ESA have announced that the Cassini probe has found a small, previously unknown moon around the giant world Saturn the sixtieth so far discovered around the ringed world. It may be a tiny lump of rock and ice but I love the fact that almost 50 years after Gagarin’s first space flight our own solar system is still surprising us. Makes me wonder what we will discover when we finally get further out (and why haven’t we pushed further, we let ourselves get so small after the Apollo missions…)
Elsewhere on the ESA site there’s a function to listen to the Huygens probe which descended into the large moon Titan from Cassini. The sound files aren’t especially interesting as such, in fact is is just a rather dull sequence of white noise, but the fact the first one is a recording of sounds heard on an alien world is. Sounds from a world no human has walked on, beamed across millions of miles to be heard for the first time in human history. Now that is impressive.
The Space Race series on BBC2 is shaping up to be quite excellent, in my (not very) humble opinion. So far we’ve gone from Von Braun and his engineers trying to escape to American forces in the crumbling Third Reich to the early 1960s. 1961 to be exact. Tonight’s documentary covered the wonderfully tense desperation between the USSR and NASA to put the first human into space. Despite being quite familiar with the history I found myself utterly gripped by this episode; how close NASA was, the dreadful explosion in the USSR. The series has the hallmark quality documentary level of detail you would expect from the Beeb mixed with re-creations.
Only 16 years before the most advanced rockets were the V2s being unleashed by the Nazis, raining destruction down on Britain – the dawn of the ballistic missile, which would cast a long and terrifying shadow across the succeeding decades. And yet 16 years later here was Yuri Gagarin climbing into a primitve rocket, knowing full well just how dangerous it was. That acceptance of danger was something astronauts and cosmonauts had in common; the willingness to push themselves into the unknown.
The Space Race was driven very much by Cold War considerations relating to those ballistic missiles and national prestige, but that doens’t mean for one moment we shouldn’t regard some of those achievements with reverence. Picture Gagarin in a violenty shaking tiny capsule, hurled into orbit; the rocket could explode, the capsule may not make it back – hell, they weren’t even sure a human being could actually survive spaceflight even if the machinery worked perfectly. And yet there was no shortage of pilots willing to fly.
So there is Gagarin, being shaken around and experiencing enormous G-force and suddenly it goes quiet and he is floating in orbit around our little world. The first man in the history to look down on the clouds scurrying across the face of the globe from above; the first to travel round the entire world in less than a couple of hours. Short centuries before the first circumnavigations of the globe were celebrated and took months or even years. Now Gagarin flashed round the Earth in just over 100 minutes.
We tend to forget just how big an adventure space exploration is today – we make jokes about Shuttle flights being delayed and are only reminded how dangerous an endeavour it is when tragedy strikes. We complain about costs (which may be big but are a fraction of what we waste on weapons) and lose sight of the sheer wonder of it all. And yet back then it was far more dangerous and raw and yet they did it. But Gagarin was the first to see our world from space and it was wondrful.
Alexei Leonov (the first man to perform a spacewalk and honoured by Arthur C Clarke by having the ship in 2010 named for him) recalled those days and his friendship with Yuri in his portion of Two Sides of the Moon which details the early space programme from both sides (reviewed here – I treasure the copy I have signed by Alexei’s co-author, Apollo astronuat David Scott (how blown away was I to talk to a man who had walked on the Moon?!?!)). Yuri Gagarin was one of my heroes when I was a boy and this series reminded me of the mixture of fascination and excitement space exploration sparked in me back then; no wonder I ended up selling SF! Perhaps Ken MacLeod’s books are partly a substitute for space travel for me. I don’t have a poster of him anymore, but Yuri is still one of my heroes; I think he always will be. He really did go where no man had gone before and he did it boldly.