For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales. - Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Locksley Hall”
Ray Bradbury’s passing on the 6th set off a chain of thoughts and reminiscences about my lifelong love of astronomy and space travel. Ever since I was a small child, I dreamed of visiting other worlds, and eagerly devoured books and shows which allowed me to do so in my imagination. It didn’t much matter to me whether the stories were realistic or fantastic, hard science fiction or pure fantasy, illustrated or not; I was just as happy with Adam Strange’s travels by zeta-beam to the planet Rann as I was with John Carter’s astral projection to Mars or the voyages of the starship Enterprise, and every bit as fascinated by the real moon landings as I was by Dr. Dolittle’s lunar excursion on the back of an immense moth.
As so often happens, the fiction inspired me to explore the fact, and I read every book on astronomy and/or space travel I could get my hands on. I must’ve read We Came in Peace (a pictorial history of the space program published a few months after the landing of Apollo 11) dozens of times, and about 6 or 7 years ago was overjoyed to discover a copy in a used-book store in New Orleans while I was killing time between calls. By the time I reached high school I was determined to be an astronomer, but after I saw Cosmos I modified that to “astronomy popularizer” instead; I wanted to be a female Carl Sagan, writing books explaining science in general and astronomy in particular to lay people. I figured I might even get my own show one day, using my sex appeal to bring the viewers in. That dream never quite went away, either; when Denise won a scholarship in chemistry and her friend Jane (to whom I was also very close) excelled in pursuing a physics degree, we conceived of the notion of trying to sell one of the cable networks a show called The Astronomy Babes after the two of them had earned their PhDs. I would also go back for my doctorate in library science, and the three of us would host the show together, talking about astronomy and space science dressed in sexy outfits. I think it would’ve been a winner; we were all beautiful, intelligent and unusually busty, and each had her area of specialization (Jane would explain physics aspects, Denise chemistry, and I would handle the cultural and historical segments). Alas, real life intervened for all three of us, but it’s fun to fantasize about an alternate world where our show is entering its third season and I’m raking in royalties from Astronomy Babes DVDs, T-shirts, web promotions, etc.
Realistically, a show like that takes some serious putting together and we probably would’ve all had to relocate to Los Angeles. But I had one other astronomy-related fantasy which was much more achievable, and had I not fallen in love I would probably be living it right now. What I envisioned was that after building my house I’d semi-retire around the age of 40, then go on tour to all the parts of the country where interesting astronomy projects were going on while Grace ran the agency at home. I planned to take only one or two calls a day (mostly just enough to pay for hotels, food and gas), leaving plenty of time to do sightseeing, visit observatories, etc. Like my heroine Phryne, I would have established a sliding scale: high prices for most clients, typical ones for highly-paid science types and nothing at all for astronomers and other scientists who took the time to give me tours and answer my questions. I know I have a number of scientists as readers, and at least one astronomer, so I’m very sorry, guys; life always seems to take me in a different direction than I imagine it will. Had I gone down that path I probably wouldn’t be doing this blog, which I humbly believe will prove more important in the long run.
Though I still love astronomy, it’s grown increasingly difficult for me to follow the newest developments. Just a few weeks ago, for example, I read an article on the neutrino observatory in Antarctica which discussed neutrinos of different masses; now, although I was familiar with the idea that neutrinos might indeed have an infinitesimal mass, the last I heard (from an astrophysicist client back in 2000) was that the concept had been disproven…and here this new article is treating neutrino mass as an established fact! And now they’re saying the Higgs boson could be detected any day now; I despair of keeping up.
Space travel, on the other hand, has become exactly the opposite for me now: I still know what’s going on and have no problem understanding it; I simply don’t give a damn about it. The endless delays of the shuttle program (chasing the ridiculous goal of eliminating all risk in an inherently dangerous pursuit), the bureaucratic obstacles which blocked all efforts at commercialization of the field so that we’ve only recently reached a point which should have been achieved about 30 years ago, the psychotic waste of trillions on warmongering, oppression and political games when a hundredth part of that could’ve opened up the solar system to us by now…all of these have contributed to my present attitude on the subject, which might be best described as, “wake me up when you actually do something.” My attitude toward most recent science fiction cinema is similar; I see it as a lot of noise and flash with no real substance.
I no longer believe human beings will walk on Mars in my lifetime, nor that we will strike out for the stars anytime in the next several centuries unless we’re forced to by some unforeseen circumstance or easily enabled to by some unforeseen discovery; human society has turned in on itself again, as it has so many times before, and the hands that hold the purse-strings are more interested in their own petty power-games than exploring new worlds. A new Enlightenment will come, as it always does, but I won’t see it in this incarnation; so of late I’ve turned away from what passes for space travel in the real world, and devoted my attention instead to explorations of the mind. Though I will never set physical foot on another world myself I have walked a thousand of them in my imagination, and there is nothing to keep me from going outside on a clear summer night and turning my eyes upward to the stars.
One Year Ago Today
“Dirty Whores” analyzes the reasons for the persistent myth of the diseased whore, and contrasts it with the truth of the subject.