Since the dawn of time, we have looked at the night sky and wondered, What’s out there? In the vastness of the universe humanity wants to see further, escape earthbound existence, understand the mystery, holy cow, what an indescribable feeling! You and I get up from our seats at the campfire. We wander into the brush and above us something looks like pinpricks in dark paper. Later we will learn that we are turning, that for us and by virtue of our motion light is smearing itself across the bent web where space and time are indistinguishable.
We are also strands in this same bent web, distorted and extemporised. What I mean is that you and I are brought out of time and shape by the mass of larger bodies. I’d like to say this when we are walking together into the brush but it is very difficult to form a sentence. The gravitational force on my teeth and soft cheek tissue worries me and I fear if I speak I may bite my tidal tongue so I stay mute and focus hard to feel the expansion and contraction of the universe in my cartilage and marrow. My knees hurt.
Are we insignificant, and do you see the moon? We see it as above us because we are on the Earth. The moon is doing its best to travel in a straight line but the mass of the Earth exerts a gravitational pull that bends this straight line into an orbit. This orbit around the Earth takes 27 days. In 1969, Neil Armstrong made footprints there; they will stay for millennia because there is no wind on the moon to disturb them. The velocity required for an object to escape the Earth’s gravitational pull is approximately 7 miles per second, or 11 kilometers per second. A speed of 6.951 mi/s or 11.186 km/s—again, approximately—will allow an object to leave the Earth’s surface without entering into any closed orbit.
Can you run? Can you run through the brush at a speed of eleven kilometers per second? Will you wave back at me when you are flying past the moon, will you wave at Neil’s stepping and leaping mankind footprints as you pass them? Will you wave at Olympus Mons when you pass it? You cannot miss it; look for a shield volcano on Mars three times the height of Everest. Will you ask yourself if anyone remembers you far away here, if you were insignificant? I regret to remind you that there will be no sign of your launch run. Footprints don’t last long here. I predict that by the end of the week you depart they will be blown away, driven over, kicked aside.
Since the dawn of your leaving, I will look at the night sky and wonder, What am I? And where are you? Where is your frozen, burnt and footprint-making body? I will look for the marks it will have made on asteroids and on the rings of Saturn. No Planet Has Captured Our Imagination Like Saturn With Its Rings, says the voice of the popular science narrator. Its practiced pitch and texture are sinuous and grate only and exactly at the edge of appropriate public speaking. But it is wrong: I am captured by everything out there, by every place your body might be. I know that it is dead. Our soft and brittle Earth bodies cannot survive. Titan, Triton, Nereid, Laomedeia, Neso, belt, comet, Pluto. I look through telescopes to find you.
Later I will be reminded that I have been looking back into time. The light from Andromeda takes 2.537 million years to reach Earth. I do not see you when I train my telescope in Andromeda’s direction but I cannot conclude that you are not there, because even if you are, you will only be visible to us on Earth when you have been there for 2.537 million years. For now, your body’s travelling where and when escape the outward opening eye of my space-time.
Sometimes it is quiet in the observatory. Then I feel acutely the air in the room, and my ears hear the shapes that reverberate in the clinical dimensions of my knowledge’s architecture. They sound unsettled and discomfited. At these times, I am desirous of a mind as sensitive as emulsion to light, one that holds footprints like a windless expanse. And so I make believe that the telescope is new. I play at turning it on and calling what it shows first light. At first light billions of old years, ancient beyond all human ancientness and therefore defiant of tideformed language, enter as bright information into the sensitized and rapturous atrium of curiosity. I look out at the many places I could be but am not, and I talk to myself. Are you insignificant, I say, and do you see the moon?
I look up. I find an object in view. The appropriate voice of the narrator tries to make tracks in the wet collodion of my understanding; we’ve got to keep believing in the midst of danger there is wonder. I need to escape the gravitational pull of appropriate voicing. This is getting scary. Venus is the brightest planet in our solar system. Its beautiful yellow clouds reflect the sun’s light, but careful—those clouds are made of sulfuric acid. Here we are corroded. In the photograph my desire to see and my desire to understand and the dissolution of a point of view I can call mine are intertwined and projected, and the configuration of two pasts is absorbed in future possibility. One of these pasts is interstellar, the other a cluster of fingers, viewpoints, a clicking shutter, internal chambers and the mind’s composition of something for development. Light years, light minutes, light seconds, light milliseconds, light time: without these there is neither space nor image. I aspire to keep this knowledge with me at all times. Holy cow, what an indescribable feeling! In the beginning there was darkness.
Gravity. Written and directed by Andy Papadopoulos, narrated by Erik Thompson, with contributions from astrophysicist Alex Filippenko. National Geographic, 2008.
Journey to the Edge of the Universe. Directed by Yavar Abbas, written by Nigel Henbest, narrated by Sean Pertwee. National Geographic, 2008.