October 27, 2009

Listening to Radiolab today, old episode, and they were talking about space. One of the things they brought up was the Voyager program, and the back and forth between Jad and Robert (The hosts) on one point was just wonderful.

One of the things on the Golden Record on board the Voyager vehicles is a brain scan of Carl Sagan’s wife right after they had decided to get married. Needless to say, she was twitterpated, and both she and Jad thought it was incredibly romantic that one of the things on the record– there for other civilizations to discover– was a human brain in love. (I actually think this is incredibly cool, too.)

Robert decided to rain on the parade, pointing out some mathematical/probabilistic realities here. Basically, scientists figure we’re going to get about 10 million years (or so) to do our thing here, and then we’ll be gone. In a universe that is 14 billion years big, and getting bigger all the time, the chances that a civilization will get here while we’re aware of it– instead of having already been here, before we had anything to say, or after, when there’ll be no-one around to talk to– are incredibly small.

Jad pushed back, pointing out that when pessimists in the past have thought that certain voyages just couldn’t be done, before too long someone proved them wrong. After all, the Pacific islands were settled by people in canoes.

To which Robert responded, “Sure, but you’re talking about the Pacific Ocean. I’m talking about the f(censored for radio)n’ universe!”

So, pessimist or romantic?


4 Responses to “Pessimist?”

  1. Evan said

    Perhaps I’m just too skeptical, but I find it almost a bit disturbing that we’ve come to believe that a series of neurological recordings and scans can really be that romantic. Thats not to say its not interesting to see the chemical processes involved, but to label those cold scientific facts as romantic misses entirely the essence of feeling love. A civilization who knew nothing of love, assuming it could or would ever find the scan, would learn nothing about love from these scans.

    • christophermahlon said

      You’re right on that account. I think what matters here is that it is romantic to us. Let’s be honest, the whole Voyager thing is more about humans attempting to sum themselves up than it is about what any hypothetical watching civilization would make of that summation.

  2. Allegra said

    Why can’t it be both? Though I do not share the sentiment that something finding our things after we are long gone pessimistic or depressing, but a way to continue our existence through history and discovery by those who find and decipher it.

    • christophermahlon said

      You’re right, I’m forcing a false choice that even I reject.

      I think it’s incredibly romantic (in the 19th century view of the word) to have done what we did on the Voyager missions. I’m also extremely pessimistic that what we did will ever matter one iota to anyone but us. I’m ok with that.

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