There was a trend in the 18th century for European country estates to include follies. These were buildings, often unusual or ornate, which served no particular function beyond displaying the wealth and grandeur of the estate owner. They were status symbols. They were for showing off.
200 years later the voyager space probes were launched. On board are the Voyager Golden Records, encoded with information about earth and the human species, designed as messages to be decoded by extra-terrestrials 40,000 years in the future. Their creator, Carl Sagan, described the launching of the messages as like the launching of a “bottle into the cosmic ocean”. The chances of them being discovered are astronomically small, and Sagan knew it.
Was the program a folly? Perhaps Sagan was embarking on an attempt to show off the wealth and status of America, the NASA space program, and his own intellect to boot.
To answer that we should consider the time – September 1977. The threat of nuclear war hung over the world. The US was still feeling the loss of 60,000 young men in Vietnam. Apple had just released their first home computers, Star Wars and Close Encounters had just been released at the cinema. In the previous few years Parliament had reached number 13 with the album ‘Mothership Connection’ and Ziggy Stardust had broken through with his song ‘Starman’. It was the time of the space shuttle, and the time of Watergate.
They were troubled times, but optimistic too. The US and the world seemed to look to the space program as a beacon of hope, and at the centre of it all, as a voice for this hope, was Carl Sagan.
The Golden Records weren’t follies, but neither were they messages to alien life. They were in fact a message to ourselves. An affirmation of our new found identity – a unified identity as one species, and as one planet. Carl Sagan paved the way, leaving behind the voice of superstition, and speaking with the voice of reason, and of optimism.
Sagan knew the danger our species was in, but he also knew our potential. He drove forward with that knowledge and taught a new generation about it, about their potential to rise above ignorance, to live in peace and to work together to uncover the mystery and the majesty of the universe. It took courage, it took resolution, it took great intellect, and great optimism, and that is an example to us all.
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A book I wrote…
Jack Kerouac"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."