Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Cosmic Perspective: Part 1

Here is the first part of an essay I wrote in 2000 AD....

Power Paradigm: Give the old V2 some portals and you've got a fifties sci-fi rocket. As for reaching the stars, it’s about as effective as climbing a church spire; if you've still got one to climb.

In the science fiction genre of the 1950s space travelers were often depicted using WWII V2 style rockets, up until then amongst the fastest thing man had invented. With their powerful and sleek lines those machines at least looked up to the job. After the war a burgeoning rocket technology dramatically shrunk the planet with vehicles that could reach their destination within minutes. Surely, I remember thinking as a boy; these were the tools with which we were going to conquer space. Moreover, in outer space the remarkable speeds of rockets would be enhanced because their progress would be unhindered by atmospheric drag. In fact, whilst engines burn space vehicles never reach a terminal velocity (unless it be the speed of light) and just keep getting faster and faster. But the sleek sci-fi rockets of the 50s were misleading; those smooth bullet shaped hulls might give them a fast look, but sharp aerodynamics, although creating an impression of speed and power, does nothing to improve performance in the high vacuum of space, and the ungainly and fragile looking pioneer 11, an essay in naked machinery, is as equally up to the job and as the sci-fi V2 based rockets. In fact Pioneer 11, as it was catapulted past Jupiter in 1974, reached a speed of over 106,000 miles an hour and became amongst the fastest of all man made objects. At that speed one can circle the Earth four times in an hour or make the trip to the moon in just over two hours. 

Given that we are capable of such technological power surely we can make vehicles that can rapidly consume astronomical distances unhindered as they are by atmospheric resistance? But as everyone knows there is that one very basic, simple and unsophisticated snag which confounds the best technology; space is simply too big even for the fastest vehicle we can think of, let alone construct. Rockets may be able to eat up the miles on Earth, but the beckoning depths of space are so immense that we may as well send an arthritic snail on an round trip to Australia as send a rocket to the stars. However, a more practical proposition than trying to get there is the Hubble space telescope, which, like pioneer 11, is another piece of space bourn Information Technology. It is an incredibly powerful instrument many orders of magnitude more acute than the first telescopes. It is capable of resolving some of the surface details on a ten pence coin placed 50 miles away. With this power it has extended our sight across the universe and way back towards the beginning. But even in its keen gaze the most distant galaxies, huge objects though they are, seem as insignificant flecks of light.

Compared to Neolithic man who first cast his eyes into the heavens, we are unbelievably more powerful. But the cosmic leviathan (Job 41) makes a mockery of that power and has the potential to soak up and consume everything we can throw at it as if our existence was inconsequential. That sense of our apparent inconsequentiality on the enormous astrophysical stage is just another special case of a more general malaise of ultimate futility which plagues our society at so many levels and means that theists must come to terms with, and begin to understand, the COSMIC PERSPECTIVE....

Information technology: Pioneer 11 beams down its messages. Naked machinery replaces naked power.

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