What Would I Send Up Into Space? (orig. published Oct. 16, 2010)
One of my favorite shows is Radiolab, on NPR out of WNYC. During one of their early seasons, they had a piece on the Voyager space craft, these probes that were launched into space with two gold records on board, containing sounds and images from earth. They are intended to be a greeting to any extra-terrestrial species who happen upon them, assuming they can decode them, and divine some of our aspects as humans (see Wikipedia). The probe even has a map on it, so the aliens can find us (and destroy us, no doubt). Radiolab went around to various scientists, authors, public figures and asked what they would put on the craft.
I had a lot of trouble thinking of what I would send up in space for aliens to find. I mean, it’s deliberately creating an archeological cache, and that’s so impossible–and has never been done before. Almost everything we have from ancient cultures, we have it by accident, or by sheer luck. Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates never wrote anything down. What we have from them was written down by their students. The only major founder of religion who did write anything down, now that I think about it, was Muhammad (and he only did it because the Angel Gabriel commanded him to, and even then, he didn’t write it–those around him took notes). Did the ancient Egyptians ever intend us to go rummaging around in their graves, trying to figure out who they were? If they had had a say in the matter, what would they have left us? What would they have put in the Voyager? What if the artifacts that we have are not the artifacts that they would have found important for us to know about? If Demosthenes was here now, what would he want us to know about him?
There’s simply no way to send context aboard a space craft. Okay, so I send up a photograph album with faces from every single country on earth. What would an alien who has never seen a human face make of them? What would they make of an iPod? of a dildo? of a book? It’s the old problem of how to explain blue to a blind person. I don’t think that anything I send up into space is going to be accurately interpreted by the aliens. I almost sided with not sending up anything at all. The only reason we can read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics is because we found the Rosetta stone, which translates hieroglyphics into another ancient alphabet that we were able to decode because we could compare that alphabet to yet another later one, until we traveled down the alphabetical family tree to our own present-day languages. We have no common alphabet or manner of communication with aliens; we don’t even know if they have anything like our own sensorial input structure, so how do we tell them anything with the assurance that they’ll be able to understand it? (Carl Sagan says math, but as someone from Earth who doesn’t understand math, I don’t know.)
So then I took the aliens out of the situation entirely. I have no way of divining what would be important or meaningful to them, so fuck ‘em. What would I want to send into space? Not what do I think is representative of Earth’s culture for the benefit of some other being, but what is important to me?
My grandparents were married for sixty-some years before my grandfather died. They had their fiftieth wedding anniversary when I was in about first grade. For that anniversary, their kids (they have six) made a quilt. Each kid made one panel, sent it off to one of my aunts who is handy with such things, and she sewed it together into a quilt. It sort of has the story of our family sewn into it.
During Katrina (my grandparents lived in New Orleans; well, my grandfather died long before Katrina), my grandmother evacuated. She left pretty much everything except a change of clothes behind. The quilt was in a closet, wrapped in plastic, but when one of my aunts found it after the storm, it had gotten infected with black mold. We spent several hundred dollars trying to get it cleaned, so that we wouldn’t have to throw it away. I think the people who had it had to cut out some fabric and replace it, I don’t know the exact procedure. So we still have the quilt (it’s one of the few things that made it out of my grandmother’s house, which took on six feet of water), but it’s scarred.
Given the chance, I’d send the quilt into space. It’s the story of my family, it’s a symbol of my family’s love for each other, and especially the love my grandparents held for each other. They were the kind of people who ate dinner holding hands, every night, for sixty years. I don’t want to overstate its symbolism, but it’s a precious object in my family. One of the few.
Space is a vacuum. The Voyager probe won’t even reach another star cluster for 40,000 years, much less be in danger of hitting anything. And because there’s no air, no bacteria, no anything, all that’s in the probe will still be in the same condition as it was the day it was sent away from Earth on the day the aliens find it. Anything up there, as long as it’s not alive, is safe. I could send the quilt up there, and it would be safe, completely out of harm’s way, out of the reach of mold and hurricanes and time. And probably aliens will never find it, and that’s fine. The Voyager space program is more about us than about them, anyway. For this symbol of my grandparents’ love for each other to be floating about amongst the stars? There’s something almost religious about that, for me.
Part of me wants love to be a tangible thing, something that leaves something physical behind, like dust. Maybe the aliens who find it would see the scars from the mold, and the way it was mended, and be able to make sense of the abstract panels, and say, “Ahh. This was important to somebody. These people care for each other,” because when the picked up the quilt and shook it out, the love scattered like coins. This is impossible, of course. Aliens will find a ratty old piece of cloth and divine that this probe is clearly nothing but a trash receptacle with stuff in it that somebody wanted to get rid of. And that’s fine, I and all of my descendents will be long dead, and we’ll have forgotten about the quilt, but I’ll have died knowing that it’s safe.
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