Lost in Space: Finding a Sense of Place in the Cosmos

This is a guest post by Sean McMahona PhD student in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. Sean’s research applies geological perspectives and techniques to astrobiological problems ranging from the origin and distribution of life in the universe to the origin of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Visit his excellent blog, Fourth Planetfor more on his research, his impressive space art and photography, and writings.

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“Though a planetary perspective is a magnificent and enriching thing, places, not planets, are the core of human experience. It is from places that we build our world.”

—    Mapping Mars, Oliver Morton (2002)

“He stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew.”

—    The French Revolution: A History, Thomas Carlyle (1837)

Last year, in a car park in Aberdeen, I saw Jupiter through a telescope for the first time. What I saw was not the familiar red-spotted giant from the Nasa photographs, that great bronze bauble marbled with cream like artisan coffee—no. What I saw, through a gap in the Scottish clouds, was a pale round smudge with three white specks for moons. It was not dramatic but it was a strange and lovely moment. It reminded me that Jupiter, the other planets, and even the distant stars and galaxies, are no less real, no less here—albeit further away—than Scotland, clouds, car parks, and me. They are on the same map, sharing our geography, our humdrum commonplace reality.

In our eagerness to be inspired by astronomical imagery, we are often tempted to forget this fundamental sameness. Documentaries about the cosmos besiege us with spectacular graphics, rousing orchestral music and rapturous, lyrical narration. In the tradition of Carl Sagan, we are urged to adopt a “cosmic perspective”, in which the Earth dwindles to an insignificant1 “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Meanwhile, digital space art is reliving the Romanticism of 19th Century painting: balance, proportion and subtlety are abandoned in favour of vertiginous perspectives, extremes of colour and contrast, and sublime, mystical lighting: silhouetted planets disintegrate into vast purple nebulae bristling with crepuscular rays. Thus, it seems that an ecstatic, almost mythical vision of outer space, emphasizing above all its spiritual and aesthetic grandeur, has taken root in popular culture.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

Maybe that vision has some role to play in attracting public interest to the space sciences. But paradoxically, it can make the “wonders of the universe” seem less accessible than ever; profound, ethereal, miraculous, even unreal. It bolsters the popularity of astrology by reinforcing the illusion that planets and stars are unfathomable, heavenly beings: much more plausible aids to divination than ordinary material things. Most worryingly, it can give the impression that space exploration is an esoteric spiritual quest, unrelated to ordinary human problems and unfit for serious attention from media, government or young, career-minded scientists.

Perhaps the “numinous” view of space reflects a deeper failure to grasp the implications of the Copernican Revolution. Somehow, I suggest, we still make some kind of basic ontological distinction between the heavens and the Earth2. Consequently, we are unable to feel truly embedded in our extraterrestrial environment, which remains a transcendent, detached and coldly beautiful space rather than a homely, material, lived-in place. The Apollo programme helped to bridge that gap for a generation, transforming the moon from an icon of celestial indifference into a humanly intelligible landscape—rather like a golf course, in fact, replete with bunkers, buggies, flags and footprints3. Revealingly, many people today find it easier to believe that the whole thing was a hoax.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA's Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA’s Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

The sharp, vivid photographs taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover can have a similar effect, reminding us that the martian surface is a real place, not so different in appearance from the rocky deserts of Libya or the High Arctic. Despite our unsophisticated cultural relationship with outer space—a mixture of mythology, indifference and reverence—a crewed mission to Mars in the next thirty years now seems very likely. I hope that mission will allow the next generation to feel more at home in the universe, more fully at ease with the fact that even Milton Keynes4 is part of the Milky Way. What we stand to gain is not an exalted “cosmic perspective” but simply a richer, more expansive sense of place, of where it is that we live our lives.

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1     This strain of rhetoric characteristically fails to observe that human beings adjudicate the significance of the universe, not the other way around.

2      Douglas Adams exploited this confusion to humorous effect, juxtaposing ordinary things with cosmic phenomena: the “restaurant at the end of the universe,” the “whelk in a supernova” and so on; “you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts compared to [the size of] space”.

3      Some readers will know that the American astronaut Alan Shephard did in fact play golf on the moon; two golf balls remain there.

4       Milton Keynes is an architecturally unprepossessing English town and home to the Open University, where much British space research has been conducted.