It’s an awesome concept – a probe sent from Earth into the Milky Way with messages of peace for any alien life that may be encountered outside our solar system.
We sent them love songs and concertos and messages of peace as a demonstration of humanity. We sent them a demonstration of humanity at its highest – our moments of brilliance, of unity and of selflessness.
Last week, the Voyager celebrated its 35th anniversary of its launch to explore Saturn and Jupiter. Now, it is at the cusp of our solar system, on the brink of exiting the celestial realm that we are familiar with and launching into interstellar territory. This, in and of itself, is quite extraordinary. With equipment developed in 1977 (that’s before home computers, CD-ROMS and disposable cameras) we have examined the 10,000 strands that comprise Saturn’s rings, its moon Titan and the rings of Uranium that are so dark they are almost imperceptible. Now, we are approaching the heliopause and the creativity and science of the human race is further out into space than ever before.
The message sent on by the United Nations reads: “As the Secretary General of the United Nations, an organizations of the 147 member states who represent almost all of the human inhabitants of the planet earth. I send greetings on behalf of the people of our planet. We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”
It is a beautiful sentiment; but it also devastating in its irony. To talk of teaching when we, as a species, are driving the extinction of species and destruction of their environment faster than new species can evolve leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. We are currently in the midst of our Earth’s sixth known spate of mass extinction. However, unlike those in the past driven by asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions; in the last 1000 years we’ve managed to obliterate 500 species (and that figure does not come near the total considering all those lost before their discovery and classification by scientists) through the destruction of habitats, introduction of foreign species and anthropogenic climate change.
It’s a message that talks of humility, hope and of humanity as if we have a track record of learning from our mistakes and evolving to live in prosperity and peace. The Secretary General says that we wish to be “taught if we are fortunate”. No species has behaved with such consistent, meaningless brutality against its own members than humans – time and time again.
We failed to learn from the 15 million deaths of World War One. We had another war instead where the Allies dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs and 72 million people were killed.We watched Stalin attempt to starve off most of the Ukraine in an insidious genocide that destroyed individuals, their families and their culture as they were forced to sometimes eat their own children or the bodies of those who had already died in desperate attempts to survive.
We then bore witness to the torture, starvation, gassing and poisoning of 6 million people at the hands of Hitler and his Nazi regime. The Holocaust is referred to in Hebrew as Yom HaShoa which means destruction or catastrophe and is one of the most vividly remembered examples of our capacity as a species to carry out acts of extreme cruelty that result in incredible devastation.
We sent the sound of a kiss of a kiss between mother and child on one of the Golden Records on board the Voyager.
Perhaps we should have included the sound of an air raid siren – a sound that meant fear for everyone in Britain during the Blitz
We included a picture of the Earth’s children surrounding a globe.
Perhaps we should have also included a photo of ‘Napalm girl’ – the forever naked, 9 year old Vietnamese girl running and screaming as napalm eats away her clothes and skin.
We have done many, many incredible things as a species. Extraordinary acts of courage and compassion go undocumented and unremembered in our collective history that make us worthy of the humanity that is documented on those Golden Records. But we have also committed atrocities and possess a capacity for destruction that has been proven resilient by history.
There has been a lot of discussion about space exploration recently after Curiosity landed on Mars and then the 35th anniversary of the Voyager. Kurt Waldheim’s (UN Secretary General) message reminds us of something that we often forget – “our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us”. Divisions and brutality makes less sense when individual ambition and aspiration is insignificant in the presence of a vast and awesome universe. Destruction feels less powerful when we remember that we have only been around for a second in the lifetime of the universe.