A response to Rajnath Singh’s unscientific remarks

Rajnath_Singh“Rajnath Singh” is what happens when there is a disconnect between dogma and common sense. That the minister does not know science is a sorry fact, it is also indicative of the ignorance that has crept deep into the core of an organization that wishes to keep its eyes closed to reality. This post is a response to his unscientific comments made in front of news media, which can be read here. What he is basically trying to do here is merge Science with mythology by referring to pundits instead of scientists. Is it really necessary to go on ranting about stuff that you don’t really know and label Astronomy as coming from a ‘US Observatory’? I mean, where is the man really coming from? Clearly, it is an attempt to glorify his mythological beliefs, which no doubt are BJP’s main driving factor.

What Mr. Singh really doesn’t know, perhaps due to his lack of scientific education, is that it is not a ‘US observatory’ that observes and tells us when an eclipse is going to happen, it is the science of Astronomy, completely consistent across the world as well as in (surprise) India itself that ‘calculates’ (perhaps too difficult a word for him to contemplate) the occurrence of an eclipse. Concepts such as tilt of the axis of the earth, revolution of celestial bodies around the sun due to gravity and the position of the point of observer on the surface of the earth that, when put together give you the end result. But why should the minister worry about those factors when he has the neighborhood pundit by his side?

Nevermind the scientific calculations, Mr. Singh must now answer some more basic questions about the knowledge he seems to  have derived from scriptures using the high intellect of his pundits (if that is what he meant).

First: Hindu mythology also says that the earth is sitting on the back of a giant turtle (or was it a tortoise). What I want to know is, does the minister really believe that that is the case? Does he really have the courage to go so far as to appear a complete fool by accepting this joke also as a truth? Is he angry or upset that science doesn’t care about his point of view and is doing well enough to steer clear of such an embarrassing claim?

Second: Does the minister really believe that the Earth was formed 196 crore years ago? 196 crores = 1,960,000,000, i.e., 1.96 billion years old. Scientists have a unanimous agreement that the Earth is at least more than 4.5 billion years old, so his pundits, whoever they are, have got this fact wrong by at least 2.5 billion years and ended up embarrassing the minister in front of the whole nation. Too bad! And by the way, that is just the age of the Earth and we haven’t even mentioned the age of the universe, which scientists agree is more than 14.5 billion years, and which the mythology somehow totally missed. How did this disaster befall the great Hindu mythology? The minister should have opened a science textbook instead of listening to his idiot pundits.

Third: What does the minister mean when he says “Earlier, science did not accept this..”? What the hell is he talking about? Another stupid thing his pundits told him? Who in the scientific community has accepted anything of this sort from the Hindu mythology? Science is a system of making observations, developing theories and then testing these theories rigorously to find out the truth and it is science that has discovered the actual age and not his pundits. There have been many ancient cultures in the world that have put their own guesses on the age of the earth and all of them have the missed the mark. It is purely a coincidence that Hindu mythology has come up with the longest time of them all, but it is still nowhere near the correct scientific calculation.

Fourth: According to Hindu mythology, when a man dies, his wife should throw herself into the fire of his funeral and become a Sati, whereas a man has no such obligation, and we can probably guess why that is. So, does the minister think this “traditional value” should also be followed by the country? Will he suggest such a step to his loved ones? Is this a tradition that he is proud of? As a citizen, I demand an answer.

“No other country could match our knowledge” Well, it might not be true of our country today, but it certainly appears to be true that nobody in the world can match the knowledge that Mr. Singh has procured through his detailed scientific assessments of his uneducated pundits. The world is light years ahead of India in terms of science and technology, perhaps because we still want to suck up to any myth, however uninformed and unscientific, as long as it makes some of us proud of it. What he doesn’t understand is that we do not want a false sense of pride, but real measurable achievements.

For instance, Algebra is now from India? When the hell did that happen? Did he derive this also from his foolish pundits? The word algebra comes from the Arabic language (“restoration”) from the title of the book Ilm al-jabr wa’l-muḳābala by al-Khwarizmi. The roots of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians. The word entered the English language during Late Middle English from either Spanish, Italian, or Medieval Latin. Algebra originally referred to a surgical procedure, and still is used in that sense in Spanish, while the mathematical meaning was a later development. If you need to read more about it, go to wikipedia. So, not only does he want to inflate his sense of mythological pride, he even wants to steal from scientific achievements of other cultures.

At this stage, rather than going on attacking the minister, I would pardon him a break and make one point very clear. Progress on scientific fronts has happened throughout the course of history. It is in accordance with that that various theories and concepts came about in different ages. So, yes, there will always be some concepts that you can attribute as having originated in one country or developed and refined in another. But, it doesn’t by any means imply that people in India discovered everything scientific and that was the end of progress of all areas of knowledge across the world.

The theory of relativity was not discovered in India. Neither did the theory of gravitation, electricity, nuclear physics, the periodic table of elements, evolution. Countries such as Japan have mastered fantastic technologies such as magnetically levitated trains, while we still are unable to figure out why our trains keep running off tracks every now and then.

What the minister has forgotten, or perhaps failed to understand, is that even the scientific achievements of India from centuries in the past did not come from pundits and that was not even mythology being practiced. That was science itself. And any person, whichever age they lived in, who developed any scientific theory was a scientist and not a pundit. And there is a huge difference between the two. Of course, a believer in mythology can still be a scientist if they follow the scientific method to draw conclusions, but the results of their method are by no means mythological in nature. Yes, it was someone living in India who invented the concept of Zero, but did he say it was thanks to mythology that he found out about Zero or was it because he used his intelligence just like many others have done all across the world to come up with their own discoveries in mathematics and the various branches of science.

The minister also fails to realize that our country was for long a source of inspiration to many other upcoming nations and do you know what for? We were the first nation in the world that had in its constitution the duty of each citizen to “build scientific temper”. But, perhaps the unscientific minister merely confused temper with temple, which is why he is part of an organization that has its origins in mythology and seems to be more concerned with where the next temple could be built.

“When knowledge is cut-off from traditional values, it becomes disastrous.” Does this sentence make any sense at all? Does he mean to say that what is wrong with the world is lack of touching of feet? Really? He thinks science tells one to stop touching our parents’ feet? Which scientific book is he referring to? Traditional values have nothing to do with knowledge.

“Civilizations which get cut-off from their traditions and values do not survive for long.” Again, what is he talking about? Which civilizations is he getting his knowledge from?

“..highly-educated youth involved in terror activities..” Oh? Now now, isn’t he talking about the ill effects of religion itself?

Now, why criticize the man so ruthlessly when there are many more like him in the country? Because he is the Home Minister. He is in charge of the country in a very special way and I, as a citizen, am obviously quite concerned with what he thinks about science and technology. I really want to know if the Home Minister of India really believes the Earth is sitting on the back of a giant turtle. I really need to know which direction this man and his party are planning to take the country towards: a progressive development of science and technology or a systematic rusting of the scientific capability and regression of the nation?

We have a right to know.

 

Edit 1: Added link to TOI report on what Rajnath Singh exactly said and expanded the intro paragraph a bit.

Advertisements

Happy New Year!!!

 

sun-rise-in-earth-orbit

Here’s me wishing everyone a great and happy new year 2014. Yes, finally, after a long wait of 365 days, the calendar has finally exhausted itself and the Earth has tirelessly completed yet another revolution around the Sun – though the point in the orbit where it started from and where it finished really has no bearing on us. It might as well have been any other point or any other date, we would still have enjoyed the feeling of the New Year just as well.

Not so overjoyed today are the outer planets, such as Jupitor, Saturn, etc. because they are not seeing the new year anytime soon. It takes both Jupitor and Saturn nearly 12-earth-years to complete their single year, so basically, you need to wait for a really really long time.

Uranus, with its 84-earth-year cycle lags a long long way behind as well. Can you imagine celebrating new year on Uranus?

And the worst of the lot – the saddest of them – I can certainly say are Neptune and Pluto with their own yearly cycle corresponding to 165 and 248 earth-years.

But that does not mean we got the best deal. Mercury celebrates its new year every 88 days, so all the party people…. Next year, forget Ibiza and head to Mercury!!!!

Arguing with an Irrational Creationist

creationism

This is an account of a debate that I accidentally and unintentionally got into with a friend’s Christian friend a few years back.

I had come across Richard Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth in a book store and my curiosity got the better of me. Till that point, I didn’t know much about Dawkins and never thought too deeply about evolution, but I started reading the book after being sure that he was a legitimate and accomplished biologist. It turned out to be quite a discovery for me and I really liked the way the concepts were explained by him.

I came across a few references to Noah’s flood but had no idea what the story was (after all, I was not a Christian) and speaking to a friend that evening, I expressed my curiosity. She told me she had another friend who had converted to Christianity sometime back and, without warning me, called him up and put him into conference. She told him what I wanted to know and the friend started explaining.

Let me point out here that till that time, I had no idea that Christians did not believe in evolution and it was a big bone of contention for most of them.

So, when he was done explaining, he asked me why I was so interested. I explained that I was reading a book which referred to Noah a couple of times but I had no idea about it. He asked me further and I told him I was reading Richard Dawkins but didn’t think he would be aware of the biologist. That is when the whole conversation turned on its head.

He immediately started slamming Dawkins in a manner that I will not expand on. I was a little concerned because I was reading the man’s book and really learned some good scientific explanations in it. I made the mistake of asking him if he didn’t believe in evolution. His answer was such a resounding No that I was mostly left stunned. After all, we had both been from India’s most prestigious school and I could never imagine someone openly declare a known scientific concept as a hoax.

He went on needlessly and without provocation to say that evolution was just a theory, there was no proof for it at all and people like Dawkins are taking a dig at religion by suggesting such baseless ideas. That Dawkins would end up in hell. Now, I am no expert at biology, but I do have some scientific education (I am an engineer). I told him that I have, and so has he, read about evolution in our science text books at school and we have seen exhibits of fossils in museums so we can’t blatantly dismiss evolution like he was doing. To this, he replied by making a point that we can’t simply believe in something just because it is written in a book. I had no idea where he was coming from and why he was seeming so outraged (afterall it was the first time I’d spoken to a Christian apologist) so I asked him how he knew evolution to be false when he himself had no scientific education while I had at least studied physics, chemistry and biology in school and then engineering. To this, his utterly foolish reply was, “because the Bible says so.”

Of course, I’d never read the bible, but I was sure the Bible couldn’t have been discussing evolution since the concept itself came with Darwin. So, when I asked him how he was any better quoting from the Bible while not allowing me to quote from my science textbook, he replied that my text book was written by a human while the Bible was written by God so anything that contradicts the Bible has to be wrong. I told him this was an unfair argument.

“What is the probability,” he went on to ask me, “that an explosion rips through a junkyard and results in an assembled Boeing aircraft?”

Even an inexperience debater like me could easily answer this.

“I know you are referring to the Big Bang (the explosion) and the end result of evolution: Man (the Boeing aircraft) but I don’t think your comparison is correct at all. The problem with your argument is that you mention explosion and end result in the same sentence but completely ignore the most important part, which is what has been happening in between the two stages. It is not as if the Big Bang happened and we fast forward to Humans walking. The billions of years of time in between saw action from Physics, Chemistry, Biology and other environmental factors that invariably led to Humans..”

“Billions of years?” he cut my argument in between.

“Of course, why?”

“Dude, the Universe and the Earth were formed only recently, maybe three or four thousand years ago and that is too little for any evolution to take place.”

“You think the age of the universe is only a few thousand years?”

“Of course, the bible says so.”

“But geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists etc. have all dated the age of the Earth to be some billions of years.”

“They are wrong,” he insisted. “But they use scientific dating methods like carbon dating and others..”

“Those methods are wrong!” he cut in again.

“Oh, those methods are also wrong?”

“Yes, that has been proven. Moreover, anything that contradicts the Bible has to be wrong.”

At this point, I was beginning to see the futility of arguing with a man who has his mind made up and who is not willing to have a reasonable discussion even though he is himself the one who started it. I, at that time, didn’t even know whose side I was on, religion or science, but I could easily figure out the hypocrisy on his part.

I asked him, “What about the fossils that we have found? Won’t you even believe the fossils exist?”

“Fossils have been placed by God himself to test our faith in him.”

“What? God placed them to test your faith? Now, did you read that also in the bible?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know?”

“Because I have faith in God, who sent his only begotten son Jesus to Earth to save us all and he gave up his own life to forgive our sins. He has made the ultimate sacrifice for us and the least we can do is love him back and have faith in him even if the other side brings any evidence to us. We know they are just wrong.”

“But what about the other religions? They have different claims on how and when the earth was created and their idea of God(s) is also extremely different from yours.” I discovered this to be true right then when I said this for the first time in my life. “All religions say the same thing.”

“They do?”

“Ya.”

“No they don’t.”

“Oh yes they do..” and then he started saying something about the Quran admitting Noah’s flood that I had no idea about.

“Ok,” I conceded.

After that, he started saying emotional stuff about how he talks to Jesus frequently and how he was into listening to Rock music in his previous life and when he found out that everytime he lied or did something bad, Jesus got a painful slash on his behalf. This made him feel extremely ashamed and he promptly converted and accepted Jesus as his personal savior.

I could feel that the discussion, even though so soft and civilized on my part and so rude and irrational on his, had somehow caused him some pain, so we changed the topic and hung up shortly afterwards and I realized this is how all debates with creationists go:

creationism

The Joys of Stargazing

Star Gazing

It was almost 4 AM on a chilly December night (or morning) in Delhi a few years back and I stood on the open terrace of my house gazing up at the night sky with my telescope. The sky was clear at last, there was no moon and so it was a good time to look for those otherwise hard-to-spot stars and star-clusters. To read the sky map, I had a torch double wrapped with red cellophane paper so as to prevent it from ruining my eyes’ acclimatization to the darkness.

Astronomy, or rather Amateur Astronomy, was a new hobby of mine, only a few months old. I had recently been reading as much as I could on the subject, joined the local Astronomy club, met and spoke to other passionate enthusiasts and even bought myself a 5-inch Newtonian reflector scope, which has become one of my most prized possessions. Reading on the subject and then spending time contemplating that knowledge gave me a new perspective.

Tonight, as I was gazing at the stars and contemplating the vastness of the universe beyond those skies, I started to get goosebumps. There are about a hundred billion stars in each of the hundred billion galaxies in our universe and I guess almost all of the stars will have their own solar systems – some big, some small. So that makes the number of planets in the universe so large that it is beyond comprehension of ordinary human brains. And yet, despite this vast number, we know of not a single other planet, except our own, to bear life.

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

Of course, being the only known (to us) life bearing planet, makes our place quite special in the universe. And what makes us even more special is the fact that we are able to contemplate our existence and ask questions about our own origins and the origins of the universe and then seek answers to them using our own intelligence. We were formed out of the same starstuff that makes the rest of the Cosmos – the planets, stars, comets, asteroids as well as the galaxies billions of light years away from our own – and we have evolved to think and ask questions about ourselves.

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Yet, on the other hand we also know that the reason why we haven’t been able to find life elsewhere in the universe is not because it does not exist, but because we are not intelligent enough and capable enough of finding out. The vastness of the universe trumps our little brains. The gigantic interstellar distances dwarf by trillions and trillions of times any distances we have seen on our earth or even in our solar system. The cosmic clock runs on a scale that trumps the longest lifetimes of humans and make us insignificant. And so, as the contemplation went on and on in my head, I lost myself into an even longer train of thoughts and it was as if I was slowly being removed from the earth. And finally, I truly realized that my relation to the universe was far greater than I had ever imagined before. I had become one with the Cosmos, not in the usual religious way, but in a much deeper and meaningful way. Because as Carl Sagan said it so beautifully:

“The Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

It is a unique perspective because it also makes me realize how precious our planet really is. We have our friends, family, idols and enemies all here on this planet. It is our home. Everybody we have ever known lives or lived here. Outside of it, there is just loneliness in the vast universe. That also makes everybody I know here that much more special. The apparent insignificance of my own existence is in itself the reason why I should continue to live because this is the only life I have and will ever have. And I am lucky to be here today. When I learn something about the universe, it is basically the universe learning about itself. When I look out at the Cosmos, the Cosmos looks back into me.

My thoughts are interrupted by a sudden strong cold breeze and I realize that I am now shivering. I hear a truck pass by somewhere in the distance but otherwise the night is very quiet. It is almost morning and the darkness is fading away. A bit like the darkness of my ignorance is fading away because of the knowledge of my own real self?

I am quite tired now so I gather my stuff and head back inside for bed, leaving my telescope behind as it continued to gaze endlessly at the cosmos beyond.

Blinded by Astrology?

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell.

— W. H. Auden

Of late, I have been having conversations with people and who are ardent proponents of Astrology, as well as with my own inner self that just doesn’t agree with this, and it is with a heavy heart that I conclude that humanity will always be split between believers and non-believers. Though it may seem plainly unreasonable to non-believers like me why there are people who live their lives aligned to their horoscopes and star charts, it is still a sad reality that there isn’t much we can do about it. Except that we can take to fighting this social evil in a case to case basis and only when we are ourselves affected by it.

But even then, you sit with someone who seriously follows astrology and you will realize how difficult it is to talk to them. The first point they make is, “I know it works because I have seen it work. And ever since XYZ happened, I am a hundred percent sure that it works and I will never dare to ignore astrological predictions anymore.”

Try and counter this with a rational argument citing examples of how terribly wrong these predictions can be at most times, and you are cut-off in between by something like, “I understand you may not want to believe it but I can tell you that it really does work. Now, of course I cannot explain how it works, but you must take my word for it, as also consider the testimonials of countless others whose lives have been positively affected by recognizing this science. It is an ancient “vidya” (Hindi for body of knowledge) and there are only a few real masters of this vidya while all others are lesser practitioners and that is why you find some predictions that may turn out to be incorrect.”

Now, this is obscene. Can you imagine a science teacher teaching like this in a science classroom:

“Now, when I say that the sum of all interior angles of a triangle equals 180 degrees, you must trust me on this and take my word for it. I have studied mathematics in college and am far more educated than you are so you must trust me. I agree that your other maths teacher gave you proof yesterday that sum of all angles is 160 degrees, but very few people have more knowledge on this subject and so you must trust me.”

What if, at the end of each year at college, instead of having exams to test students’ knowledge, we could simply read their horoscopes to know how much they would score in each subject and then grade them accordingly? Wouldn’t it save a lot of time, effort and money on part of both the teachers and the students?

What if schools decide that instead of asking students what streams (like engineering, law, medical science, business, etc.) they wanted to specialize in, they simply read the horoscopes of each one and allot subjects accordingly? “Greg’s horoscope says doctor, Henry’s says Lawer, Patrick’s says he’s gonna have a short life so let’s just expel him.” Wouldn’t that be brilliant?

Why do we vote for governments every few years when we could easily just publish the horoscopes of every man in the country and then pick the best of those for the top job? Why don’t we let horoscopes decide which players are going to excel today and pick only them in the team?

Why hire judges and lawyers in courtrooms when the outcome can even be decided by the local astrologer by reading the horoscopes of the  aggrieved parties?

Let me tell you the answer to all these WHYs and the answer is that we don’t know anything for sure. We don’t know what is going to happen and that is the way the world is. It is depressing that we do not have satisfying answers to all our problems, we want to define why somethings happen while others don’t so that we can bring some sort of order to our lives.

We have no command over our futures and nobody knows anything for sure but being human means dreaming, aspiring, working hard, fighting the odds and if we take these elements out of our lives, then being human means nothing different from being just another animal.

In my conversations with believers, my point is never to convince them this astrology business is a fraud and hopeless. I know people, including me, have fear of the unknown and who am I to deny someone their right to feel better even if it means a little bit of superstition? And I also know that rational arguments will rarely convert a staunch believer. But what I always do say is that “You can never know for sure” and so when it comes to decisions of life and death, of someone’s happiness, dreams, aspirations of people that we care about, let us not be so cruel as to flaunt our arrogance of “knowing for sure” and forcing them to confirm to what a piece of paper with some boxes and numbers drawn on it says about them.

Let us be superstitious, but let us also draw a line between what is harmless superstition and what is harmful with life-altering and devastating consequences.

Because, if it is indeed true that everything that happens and is going to happen in this world is already written in some star charts, then doesn’t it make life, effort, love, hate, ambition, success, dreams and all human experiences pointless? Isn’t it demeaning to be told that all your dreams and efforts mean nothing just because your horoscope said something will not happen? And if the horoscope does fail, you dismiss the failure as a lack in completeness of knowledge of such a complex “science”?

Doesn’t it diminish the essence of being human whereas?

What do you think?

“There are two ways to view the stars: as they really are; and as we might wish them to be.” – Carl Sagan

Eratosthenes and the Circumference of the Earth

Portrait of Eratosthenes

Eratosthenes was an astronomer, historian, geographer, philosopher, poet, theatre critic and mathematician, who lived in the 3rd century BC in the greatest metropolis of the age, the Egyptian city of Alexandria. His envious contemporaries called him ‘Beta’, the second letter of the Greek alphabet, because they said, Eratosthenes was second best in the world in everything.

However, it was quite an underevaluation of the greatness of the man.

He was the first person to use the word “geography” and invented the discipline of geography as we understand it. He also invented a system of latitude and longitude.

He was the first person to calculate the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth’s axis (also with remarkable accuracy).

The story of the calculation of Earth’s circumference is very interesting. Eratosthenes was also the director of the great library of Alexandria. There, one day he read in a book that in the southern frontier outpost of the ancient Egyptian city of Swenet (known in Greek as Syene, and in the modern day as Aswan) on June 21 at noon, the Sun would appear at the zeith, which means directly overhead. Thus on this day at this time at this location, a vertical stick would cast no shadow. On the summer solstice, June 21 (the longest day of the year), as the hours crept towards noon, the shadows of the temple columns drew shorter and shorter. At noon precisely, the reflection of the Sun could be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well.

This was a fairly simply observation that someone else might easily have ignored. What significance could sticks, shadows, reflections and wells  have on the simple everyday matters? But Eratosthenes was a scientist and his musings on these commonplaces changed the world; in a way they made the world.

Eratosthenes had the presence of mind to do an experiment, actually to observe whether vertical sticks cast any shadows at noon on June 21 in Alexandria as well. And his discovery was that they do.

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow while a stick in Alexandria, could cast a pronounced shadow.  In case, at both places had there been no shadows, or had the shadows been of equal lengths, it would have been easy to explain considering the earth to be a flat surface and the Sun’s rays to be inclined in both cases at equal angles. This would have been easily explainable. But this was clearly not the right explanation under the present observation.

Hence, the only possible answer that he saw was that the surface of the Earth was curved. Not only that, the greater the curvature, the greater would be the difference in the shadow lengths.  Since the Sun was so far away, its rays falling on any two locations on the Earth can be considered parallel for all practical purposes. Thence, according to the difference in shadow lengths between the two observations, Eratosthenes was able to calculate that the angular separation of Alexandria and Syene to be of 7 degrees along the surface of the Earth and this 7 degrees was approximately 1/50th of 360 degrees, which was the total angular circumference of the Earth. Knowing the distance between the two cities was approximately 800 Kms, because he hired a man to pace it out, Eratosthenes was able to calculate that 800 Kms times 50 is 40,000 Kms and so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

It was a brilliant deduction, especially in an age where the only tools he had available for this scientific experiment were a few sticks, eyes, feet and brains. Most importantly, he had a taste for experimentation, a thirst for knowledge and a curiosity to understand the basic tenets of nature, which were all ahead of his own age.

The story of Eratosthenes and how one man changed our understanding of our world is an awe inspiring example of the power of scientific inquiry and inquisitiveness. He drew his conclusions objectively from the observed facts of the world and not according from his personal wishes and preferences.

 

 

Further Reading:

“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan (book)

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/hawking/cosmostar/html/cstars_eratho.html (online reading)

 

The Voyagers

The Voyager Spacecraft

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot – Photographed by Voyager

In 1977, NASA launched the twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts whose primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn. After making a string of discoveries there — such as active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io and intricacies of Saturn’s rings — the mission was extended. Voyager 2 went on to explore Uranus and Neptune, and is still the only spacecraft to have visited those outer planets.

Saturn rings with “spoke” features in B-ring. Aug. 22, 1981. 2.5 million miles.

Their extended mission is now called the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM). As of this mission, the Voyager spacecrafts, which have drifted to the edge of the Solar system beyond Pluto, will continue to explore the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. And beyond.

The Voyagers are currently in the Heliosheath, – the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. It is basically the zone beyond which, the Sun’s influence ends and we reach the interstellar space. And they are still sending scientific information about their surroundings back to Earth.

The Golden Record

But that is not all that is wonderful about these crafts. NASA has also placed a very ambitious message aboard the Voyagers 1 and 2. Each craft contains a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc, called a phonograph. This disc contains sounds and images that are selected to portray the diversity of life on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by the great astronomer and astronomy populariser, late Dr. Carl Sagan of Cornell University. They have included a variety of natural sounds like wind, thunder, birds, etc. along with musical selections from different cultures and eras and spoken greetings from Earth-people in 55 languages. And a lot more.

The extremely ambitious hope is that sometime in the future, some extraterrestrial beings might discover the Voyager and will look at it and discover the Golden Record. They might not understand the strange sounds that the record will make. We don’t know if those beings will even have the same sense of sounds as we do or will their “ears” be differently capable? Will they have vision like us or will that also be like something we cannot even imagine? We don’t know. And they will never be able to figure out where this came from, which edge of our galaxy, which direction, which planetary system around which of the billions of stars inhabiting the milkyway. None of this will ever be known to them. And we don’t even know if there ever will be a “them” to discover our message.

At the time of writing this blog, I checked NASA’s website (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/where/index.html) and found that the Voyager 1 is currently 18.169 billion kms away from the Sun. When you think about it, the vastness of this distance trumps our brains. Can we imagine a distance of 18+ billion kms? It is unlike anything we have ever measured on earth of course. Yet, in the context of the size of the Milky Way itself, this distance is nothing but a fraction of a fraction of a small dot.

The Voyager spacecrafts are both beyond Pluto and they find themselves in empty space now. There is nothing there to see, except darkness. There is no upcoming planet, no moon and no source of light as well. The Voyagers will continue their slow and patient journey for the next thousands of years or maybe much more.

Eventually, the Voyagers will pass other stars. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis. In some 296,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 4.3 light years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

Will we ever hear from the voyagers when they reach there? That’s not possible. Will humanity even exist after such a long time? Extremely improbable. But whether humans exist or not, and whether some other extraterrestrials even find and read our message or not, we have already communicated to the cosmos announcing that we existed and dared to look up at the sky. We looked at the distant stars and contemplated the vastness of the universe. We understood and are still trying to understand what we see when we look up at the night sky.

Thousands of years into the future, we may not exist but this message will exist and probably through this, we will continue to live in a poetic sense. I am sure that the majority of people on our planet don’t even know about the voyagers and what I have described above. Most of those who do might never understand the depth of this endeavour. But it is important that we do know and that is why I am even writing this.

Does this adventure of the voyagers make any difference to someone when they are going about their lives trying to make a living, maintaining relationships, planning for their future, worrying about daily stuff, etc.? Maybe not. But then, neither does any form of poetry. Still most people are greatly moved by poetry and this lonely and courageous journey of the voyagers is nothing less than poetic. We may not be able to travel such interstellar distances ourselves because we are humans and need food to survive and we do not even live for so long. But we have made something that will carry out this journey on our behalf.

Knowing that the universe is largely a lonely place with nothing for trillions of miles and no one to contact is a saddening thought. Knowing that our efforts, however grand we might think them to be, are really never going to be good enough when you contemplate the vastness of the universe is a very humbling thought. Yet, we should take great pride in the fact that we know our limitations very well but we do not fear failure.

As Carl Sagan has noted, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

We may not have all the answers to all the mysteries of the universe but we do represent a thirst for knowledge that defines being human. And this thirst for knowledge, adventure, courage, hope and ambition for unravelling the mysteries of the universe will always be the symbol of being human. And having a common understanding of the grandness of the cosmos will only bring us all together. We will learn to care about the planet and our species because for over trillions and trillions of miles, we will not find another like us.

P.S: I am not a scientist or a science writer by any stretch of imagination, but what I do represent is my own thought and  understanding of the world. There certainly are better knowing people than me and I do not claim to be an authority on this subject and most of the factual data in my blog is sourced from NASA’s website: voyager.jpl.nasa.gov. What I have added are my personal feelings about this.

%d bloggers like this: