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Friday, March 02, 2012

Lost in the great blue yonder

Sputnik went up in 1957, Gagarin went out into space in 1961, Alexei Leonov made the first space walk shortly after. Then the alarmed and insulted Americans scrambled furiously into the race, and lo, by the end of that decade the first men had landed on the moon (or so they claim, and not everybody believes them!) By 1973, with Skylab, astronaut-scientists were ready to spend months at a time in a space station far above the earth. That was the era in which my generation grew up (I was ten in 1973, and a voracious reader already). The whole world was agog: space was hot, and next to the Beatles maybe (“we’re more famous than Jesus Christ!”), space science was the coolest thing.  

Sci-fi imaginations ran wild, predicting wonders that went vastly beyond anything that the most daring scientists were then willing to contemplate, and yet such incredible and all-round progress was being made by those same scientists all the time that it seemed all the fantasies would come true only too soon. We talked avidly of hibernating spacemen and proton/ion engines, super-intelligent computers in charge and teleportation and hyperspace jumps and wormholes in the space-time fabric, and world government and intergalactic empires and how ancient psychological, economic, political and religious problems would re-surface in new guises in vastly distant and alien environments light years away – as though such things were sure to come true, if not in our own lifetimes, then certainly within those of our grandchildren. Meanwhile SETI seemed to hold forth another glorious promise: discovering different forms of intelligent life scattterd all over the universe! Those who want to know what I am talking about need only to look up the books written by Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Frank Herbert, and the incomparable Star Trek series on TV…

That vision has largely faded, leaving only a dim afterglow. There have been no big-ticket space projects since Pioneer, Voyager, Viking and the Shuttle program. Despite searching for more than three decades, no serious hint of alien civilizations (a la War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Star Wars, ET and Independence Day) has been found. Given the technological plateau we have reached, interstellar travel, it has now become apparent, remains a pipe dream for the near future at least. These days, it’s only boys from Bankura who talk of specializing in astrophysics and joining NASA (most of them end up writing software code in Bangalore, or fusty post-doc papers which nobody reads at places like TIFR at best). Now that the missile race (which, as those in the know have known for a long time, was the real purpose behind all the PR drivel) between two superpowers has subsided – and since China doesn’t seem to be interested – no government can whip up public enthusiasm to fund big new exploratory projects either; much better to focus on very earthbound problems, such as finding new sources of oil and water, and better methods of pollution control, and how to make keyhole surgery on the heart. Programs like the International Space Station have hardly made a blip in the global media, and most of the current enthusiasm focuses on privately funded shuttles/hyperplanes designed to carry well-heeled and sensation hungry tourists into near-earth orbits for a few hours. Even fiction and fantasy seem to reflect the trend: if you think Matrix or Minority Report or Artificial Intelligence or Inception or the Harry Potter saga, nobody seems to be thinking seriously of leaving earth far behind – an occasional Avatar notwithstanding.

Shall we tell our grandchildren we were the last space crazy generation, then? Or were the sci-fi writers of the 1940 to 60s right all along: that such miracles were only likely to come about in a matter of hundreds, or even thousands of years, and we were getting all het up for nothing?


Shilpi said...

This post fascinates me. It probably has something to do with my non-intellectual and non-academic but rather intense interest in outer space just before I could read and understand books. But I did read and digest one section in an encylopaedia (with stunning pictures of outer space, including our very own modest solar system; don't remember reading about black holes and all though) when I could.

The first paragraph made me hold my breath and laugh. I didn't know that people don't believe that Americans haven't been to the moon.

Sadly enough, I didn't read much - neither sci-fi nor anything that would remotely make fall within a modest list under the title 'astrophysics' while growing up but was so sure that there must be ETs out there although the incomprehensible ways that human scientists thought of sending messages to them sort of made me scratch my head. Even now I don't know whether music or math are such universal languages that they would make sense to ET life-form. They had one article in the NG too, and just some years ago I think, and it would seem to me that we aren't really capable of imagining ETs which don't somehow look like mutated and revolting humans.

I watched Contact in college and that sort of made sense. Not the bit of the 'actual' travel (or whether that's possible or not) but the idea that ETs could indeed be closer to the impressions of mystical/spiritual/religious nuts.

I read my first sci-fi story (the one you'd sent) when I was very old, and funnily enough it didn't sound like sci-fi to me. I read an Asimov story a year later, and then some years ago picked on Frank Herbert's Dune series and some short stories by Clarke, and to me it would seem that apart from the space travel bit and distant empires, all of it is rather possible and rather eerily similar to what might and is happening on earth but also more complex and also very natural, and the idea of communication through thoughts seemed enchanting but rather real unless it sounded rather uncanny.

Now I keep wondering why humans ever did gallop off into space. Maybe it's like that liner from that mountaineer, 'because it's there', and so maybe exploring unexplored vistas remains a passion among humans, no matter what. I think I liked that book Debjaan so mightily because it sort of paints a curiously different notion of ET life-form, and I think it's a similar reason that I liked Dune and that favourite short story. Maybe because apart from space travel, these also bring up matters regarding human consciousness, the human mind, mysticism, love, destruction and creation within the fabric of fantasy/sci-fi.

These days, even though pictures of space and sudden writings still arouse that strange fascination within, and I every now and again marvel over life on this planet, I wonder sometimes of what we are missing by improving our technological prowess while sort of degenerating for the most part into mindless chunks of matter. We'd probably try to find ways of getting more oil and water from other planets and pushing off our waste products on them if we were to discover them by some chance, and even if we did find other life-forms, after awhile even that would become uninteresting because what about life on earth, and the problems and mysteries it entails? Maybe if earthly life continues and becomes less mind-dead and less keen on tiny fields of specialization, future generations will unravel some mysteries of the universe and life that sci-fi & fantasy writers (and also from the current generation) have hinted at strongly.

Sorry for this rather long comment but talking of outer space and visions of a universe also reminds me of that liner you'd quoted, 'Naalpey sukhamasti, bhumaiva sukham'.

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

Seems like a coincidence that yesterday I went to a nearby university town, Boulder, and bought Dune, which was on sale. I remember Shilpidi mentioning a couple of times that this was one of the sci-fi books she liked immensely.

I was in class three when I watched E.T. for the first time. I had no clue what the movie was about before I started watching it. And by the time the movie ended, I had become a fan of Steven Spielberg, had decided that I was going to watch it on several occasions again and, for a brief period of time, had also decided on becoming an astronaut just so that I could meet some E.T. some day. That 'ambition' surely fizzled out fast enough. Seems ironic that I ended up in one of the fields of study you mentioned in your post!

Well, but in the very few science fiction books (that also deal with space exploration at some level) I have read, I have always ended up awed by the very different perspective they provided of very simple things. I am reminded of the Foundation series, Rendezvous With Rama, some of the short stories I read from the omnibus I borrowed from you, Nightfall to name a few. Good stories are never about the technology in a futuristic world but always about some deep psychological aspect of the human mind. Star Trek is one series whose books I have always wanted to read, but I don't know where to start.

I honestly don't know where I am going with this post. I do hope that readers remain interested in stories of space exploration and travel, even if not in the real thing. For it definitely provides readers with a good imagination to escape to a different world.


Debarshi Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards.I certainly hope that your very credible doubt does not transform into cold reality,Sir.Right from the title of your post,to the contents in entirety-the sense of wonder and awe is reflected.From times immemorial,men of all races and ages have been fascinated by the great blue dome covering our landscapes-what secrets does it hold?Is our existential reality shared across parallel universes?I have always asked this question of myself-Could it be possible that different physical laws governed the farthest reaches of space,or that there might be races just like ours inhabiting other solar galaxies?Would they experience the same values,virtues/vices which we do today?Were they too trying to communicate with us,and meeting with very little success?

In a parallel universe,how would they be known as?Just like Arthur C Clarke's novels,or Asimov's fantasies,Stanley Kubrick's movies,or William Gibson's virtual reality augmentations lead us to believe?When I ponder upon all these questions,Sir,I face up against a blank wall which offers me no answers to my queries.When we manufacture machines,we provide user manuals with them,so that one might know exactly its guiding purpose,its proper mode of function.We humans strangely do not have any such automatic code for reason or morality-what if there were no real purpose behind our lives?If that reality ever came into being,the world would witness a far lethal apocalypse than the one they fear to this day.

Sir,I earnestly hope that we can convey this sense of wonder to our future generations,so that they might not cease from exploring-maybe in the farthest reaches of space lie our deepest answers.What if the entire universe was God's brain?We do not ourselves know the deepest nooks and crannies of our own minds-maybe our exploration shall one day strip bare the mystery of origin,the reason behind it all,and the depths of the human heart.

With best wishes,

Aki said...

This post reminds me of the day you read Asimov's 'The Last Question' to us in class. I have gone on to read many more science fiction stories from then on, but I still hold a special fondness for The Last Question. What is strange is that I didn't enjoy reading it as much as I had enjoyed hearing you read. There was something about the way you read it, which made me feel as if I was a part of the story.

Fascinating post!


shoumo(papai) said...

suvroda, this post reminds me of a statement that you had made long back in 1993 when i was involved in a project titled "wildife conservation".we were having a stroll and as usual discussing on varied subjects one context leading on to another.you had asked me to conclude my project with a comment that has a strong resemblance to the one that has been made at the end of this post. "are we ready to accept the fact that common animals like the horse would be only in pictures for the generations to come".

Sunup said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. I went through the links you provided and they in turn took me to further links -- fascinating facts that I didn't even know till now; like Project West Ford; and also a wonderful website called Heavens Above, which lets you track the exact location and course of the International Space Station and some big satellites which are visible to the human naked eye.
Coming back to your post -- I feel that the quest for the 'ET', the desire to explore the universe -- was very prominent with my grandparents generation (the ones who would be aged around 75 and above now). What was achieved in those days, with the very limited computing power available, was really remarkable. Now with the vast amounts of computing power available and the technological advancements made, we haven't really reached any great heights than from the 50s-70s. The United States hasn't yet found an able replacement for its famed Shuttles which comes from the era of the space crazy generation, though there are claims that a worthy successor to the Shuttle program would be unveiled anytime soon. But then still its an old idea.
Maybe mankind has realized that it's just humanly not possible to do any great space odysseys themselves. Our advancements in computational science may be huge enough, but in other areas like teleportation, generation ships, egg ships, propulsion, travel speed etc., we are no where and don't seem to have any great desire or will to make those happen too.
By the way Sir, many among my old classmates were like the "boys from Bankura". Always talking of astrophysics and space sciences. But then I guess unfortunately the IITs took away those 'school-boyish' interests. And then finally Sir, regarding the skepticism regarding NASA having landed men on the moon. I have seen footage and read a lot regarding the landing on the moon, and counter-claims too. I have read somewhere that the on-board computers on the lunar landing ship and those on the tracking stations on earth had computing powers less than our present day hand-held scientific calculators. So did they really do it.........?? If so, then those guys from the space crazy gen were truly remarkable and ingenious.
I have heard my mom say that the Apollo 11's moon mission was widely covered in the Malayala Manorama newspaper, and how her dad and her uncle would sit and argue for hours regarding the mission and its claims. That really shows that that generation was indeed space crazy. Our present day newspapers hardly cover anything related to science or technology, let alone space science. Things like the Mars project or our very own Chandrayaan hardly find coverage space on the papers. And I am very sure that half the crowd in my office wouldn't even have heard of Chandrayaan!

aranibanerjee said...

Fascinating post. My father was a proud subscriber of Sputnik and in the still-Soviet-haloed days of early eighties, Bengalis spoke fondly of Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and the rest. As the cold war fizzled out, so did the war of the titans: Sputnik and (infinitely more popular) Readers' Digest. On 13th July 1985 (my fifth birthday), my parents took me to Chitralay Cinema in Durgapur and we watched Spielberg's E.T. After the film, I was told by my proud parents that Spielberg had stolen the story idea from Satyajit Ray.
Alas! 'Where have all the sci-fi's gone?' The last decent sci-fi that I watched was 'Patalgarh' and the slightly over-rated English film, 'Inception'.
I do not watch films for technology. Cinema is not e-learning. I want a good story where there is more than psychological mazes. Can one not even write a Professor Shonku?
We live in an era when post modernist-meta narratives of history and memory( stuff like-- you don't know that your family saga is as interesting as a treasure hunt in mid-Amazon)has overpowered the more wild world of imagination. We live in the past and the present. The future is a matter of stock-market speculation. Will India hit the 9 per cent-GDP- growth mark? Will Educomp invade ICSE schools? Will Flipkart replace Baharisons or Higgin and Bothams? Technology is a solution provider. It is closer to the buffalo-skin of the code-writing cyber coolie.
I want to write a sci-fi. This will be all about a Boeing that a ten-year old boy boards. But, as he moves to the washroom he catches a glimpse of the OLED display in the HUD panel...the aeroplane slows down and slows down and then there is time warp of many many years.
There are a few Indians like Dimitra Atri (a teacher at TIFR) and Sanjoy Som (a fellow at NASA) who actively enagage with the extraterrestrial. One can access their ideas at sites such as these: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/sunday-review/messages-to-et.html and http://www.dearet.org/home

With warm regards,

Dipanwita Shome said...

Dear Sir,

This is to point out some mistakes in the above comment.
Dimitra Atri is not a teacher, he is a research scientist at TIFR.

SAnjay Som has been born and raised in Switzerland. He has even served in the Swiss army. He does not consider himself Indian. We must keep him out of the Indian bracket.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Nice to read the responses, especially those reminiscing over related things I had said years and years ago.

Debarshi, a litle reminder: the devout think that God is not coterminous with His creation; He is immanent in it, but also stands above and beyond. Arnab, thanks for the compliment. I too have found, because of some wonderful storytellers in my childhood, that hearing a story can be even more fascinating than reading it. Nishant and Sunup, no personal offence intended, I'm sure you understand. And Dipanwita, thanks for the correction, but why couldn't Arani have done it himself?

Let's see whether a few more interesting comments come in.

Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

None taken, of course. The word I was looking for probably wasn't 'ironic', but something else (I'm not sure what). But in any case, it is interesting how I started off hoping to look beyond the skies and ended up trying to look inside the earth. But thanks for introducing us to Asimov and Clarke among many others.


Ranajoy said...

Good article. I believe you are true. People hardly find or try to find time out of the harsh realities of existence. Greed has surpassed need. Therefore time to imagine and read is almost gone.

Rajdeep said...

Recently I saw the updated Carl Sagan series.

I had read the book many year back when you had introduced.

What amazes me is that despite so much of information that scientists claim to have gained, they have so few photographs to show us!

The same shots of nebula etc. over and over again.

Or am I mistaken and the universe looks the same everywhere?

Shilpi said...

This is a fun link for this post.... Came across it by looking at the news page after a long time. The first link takes you to the second one. The second one is the fun one. Strange too on multiple counts.



Shilpi said...

I watched this one after a while, while revisiting this post - I think it has something to do with your latest 'meditations'. It fits here for this post of yours. I keep thinking every time I can disagree with one point until I hear the next line...and the next...The voice over is a little unclear but one can hear it on another clip. But this clip makes for good watching with the visuals.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Update: Watched Gravity and Interstellar in recent times: left me unimpressed.

Why don't people try to make great movies based on the Foundation series, or the Dune trilogy?