“The Interstellar Age” by Jim Bell: to the highth of this great Argument

Taking advantage of a rare celestial alignment of the planets, those two robots, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, gave us all our first detailed, high-resolution, glorious views of the solar system beyond Mars, revealing the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and their panoply of rings and moons, in all their awesome wonder — not just for scientists, but also for poets, musicians, painters, novelists, moviemakers, historians, and even kids.

The Interstellar Age, p.2.

I’ve just finished reading Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty Year Voyager Mission, and, what a ride for an old space nerd like me!  The book is a bit of a hybrid, at once a biography of the ongoing Voyager mission and of Bell the Planetary scientist and President of the Planetary Society.  I’ll say right off, I didn’t learn a whole lot about the Voyager missions.  Bell and I are near contemporaries – I was born at the beginning of the 60s and Bell in the middle.  Certainly we took very different educational paths, though we apparently shared unexemplary dedication to our studies.  But what Bell and I do share is a passion for discovery and the very human idea of exploration.

Bell emulates our shared inspiration, Carl Sagan, emphasizing that Voyager isn’t about robots exploring the universe – it’s about humans, very real, next door neighbour, funny, quirky, artistic humans exploring the universe with tools they have made with their ingenuity and the creativity of generations of engineers, technicians, mathematicians, writers, artists, musicians and poets.  Bell met Sagan.  I only read his words and saw him on television.  Bell was at times in the thick of the Voyager excitement, was on the sidelines for the rest.  I was always up in the cheap seats with a pair of binoculars and one bad eye.  I watched Star Trek. Bell watched Star Trek, but for some reason doesn’t mention Voyager’s appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Despite our different paths, Bell and I have watched the Voyager probes carefully for all our adult lives, so, there wasn’t much new to me about Voyager in The Interstellar Age.

But I couldn’t put it down!

The book opens with frequent references to the Arts and Sagan’s friend and collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg is mentioned and cited throughout.  The book is about the creativity of science, the joy of collaboration, and the sheer human exhilaration of being part of a huge, multi-generational creative process.  The Interstellar Age is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit, the spirit expressed in the Golden Records we all sent to the stars on the two Voyagers.

Bell’s book is not about robots, planets and orbital mechanics. It is about the wonder of being human in this infinitely discoverable but never fully knowable universe.  That’s a great Argument I’m glad to be a part of!

The Interstellar Age is published by Dutton.

Just after I finished writing and posting this review I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s departure. Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock, the Scientist-as-Hero-in-Space, I know inspired many of Bell’s and my generation to pursue careers or life-long interest in Space Science.    The One made such a difference to the Many.
Thank you, sir.

Scott Berry’s “Confusement”: Two Video Walk-Throughs and a Thought or Two

Confusement – The feeling of being stared at but no one can see who you are.
– Scott Berry

We hoped to collaboratively create an environment for the viewers to experience and make their own meaning.
-from the program accompanying Confusement

Scott Berry’s installation, Confusement, a collaboration with dozens of fellow members of the Nina Haggerty Collective, staff, volunteers and visitors, is a breathtaking mirror held up to each of us.  Anyone who has spent time with people who are “different”, who have “disabilities” or “challenges” or “special needs” is familiar with the double takes, the brief or extended stares, the uncomfortable smiles that inevitably are directed their way.  Berry has turned the tables on “us” with Confusement.

Here we are surrounded by thousands — possibly tens of thousands of unblinking eyes (and a few blinking ones). Voices are whispering around us, but its hard to catch any words.  Bits of music float by, scales on a piano.  A mirror faces us at the end of the entrance corridor – this is about us. Hands reach out from walls, ghostly figures (packing tape whole body casts of Collective artists) loom above us and around us.  Just before turning the corner into the heart of Confusement – a party of ghostly figures in conversational knots surrounded by yet more eyes – one is mesmerized by Berry’s computer video of floating lidless eyeballs, staring, somehow blinking their irises, unpredictably and uncannily.

For all the Lovecraftian spookiness such a description might imply, Confusement is not frightening.  It is certainly designed to confuse, to playfully unsettle, but also to amuse, pleasantly mystify, and stir us to beneficial thought.  These eyes mean no harm. These unknowable figures are busy about their own affairs.  The curtains of eyes are the environment we all move through every day, but some of us are forced to swim more deeply in that sea of benign, but too often unseeing eyes, the world of Confusement.

The day before the dismantling of the installation, I made two impromptu video walk-throughs.  They do little justice to the powerful effect of the vision of Scott Berry and the Nina Haggerty Collective.




Confusement was at the Stollery Gallery of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts in Edmonton from February 12-27, 2015.

On the Misattribution of Quotations

Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.  

— some Italian guy whose name I can’t remember and what’s it matter anyway?

For all my adult life I have found the misattribution of quotations to be a crime akin to plagiarism and theft, indeed, it is a sort of cultural vandalism, an appropriation committed against a usually dead author and the framing of another for the crime.

Social media have increased the incidence of the crime and my anxiety level over it.  When I come across a tweet in which Sinclair Lewis is given words about fascism, flags, and Bibles, or Voltaire defends to the death the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdou, or any of the countless other bits of pith that echo through cyberspace attached to the names of great wits who likely said no such thing, I grab a book of quotations, then another, and another. Then I google.  Rarely does it turn out that the attribution is correct.

For the record, Voltaire did not offer to defend to the death anyone’s right to say something:, those were his biographer’s words. And there is no record of Sinclair Lewis talking of fascism wrapped in a flag holding a Bible — and there is significant record of other people saying similar things.

Sure, we all make mistakes.  I confess I spent a number of years quietly convinced that “What tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive” was in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, never imagining it was from Scott’s Marmion.  Thankfully, I never exposed such an error on social media, and I was glad when I learned the truth.

Some will ask “what’s it matter?”

I’m sorry, but I think it important to accurately give credit to the persons of the past who had the wit, who spoke the words which capture our attention and express our feelings today.  Giving credit to the wrong person is little different from claiming the credit oneself.  If we don’t care to remember by name the giants upon whose shoulders we sit (to paraphrase Newton [1676] paraphrasing Bertrand of Chartres [12th Century], Burton [1621], et. al.), are we not remarkably tiny people?

Perhaps a reason I am so obsessive about the problem is that I was, as a young boy, framed for the theft of some of the most beautiful lines of English poetry.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, sometime before my fourteenth birthday I discovered the poetry of Yeats while reading Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe.  In those days, I had youthful dreams of becoming a science fiction author (instead, I came to live, as we all have, in the science fiction I read as a teen).  For an assignment in my grade 8 English class in late 1974 or early 1975, I wrote a short, two page science fiction story about a young man searching the universe for eternity for his lost sister.  My story closed with the young fellow recalling some lines from The Song of the Wandering Aengus by Yeats.  I clearly included attribution!

Some time later my teacher, Mrs. Whittaker, approached me with the news that the yearbook committee would be interested in printing my story in the literary section of the yearbook.

“Cool,” I thought.

“Okay,” I said.

At the end of the year I got my copy of the yearbook and was absolutely horrified.  My story was not in the yearbook.  Instead, there were Yeats’ lines, lines that had inspired Ray Bradbury, there they were, perpetually preserved, with my name attached as author!

I immediately crossed out my name and wrote “WBYeats” in an emphatic but kind of ragged scrawl. image The idea that someday, somewhere someone would think I had claimed Yeats’ words for my own has haunted me now for almost forty years.  I am horrified today as I look at the evidence.  In all seriousness, I feel like I have been framed for a truly heinous intellectual crime, a false accusation which hangs over every academic paper I’ve published and sullies those achievements with the guano of injustice.

For decades I’ve hidden this undeserved shame, but now I’ve finally come clean.

Despite what the nameless members of that yearbook committee accused me of, I never claimed the words of Yeats as my own! (Using Yeats’ line “Through hollow lands and hilly lands” in my poem “Elven-Maid: A Consciously Archaic Fragment” was an homage.)  Seriously, after forty years, it still hurts, and I’m still ashamed of an intellectual crime I was wrongly accused of committing.

However much the Twitterati may shrug it off, proper attribution is important!  For god’s sake, do your due diligence before you hit “retweet”!

A note of due diligence:

the epigram at the head of this post is from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, as “rendered into English” by Edward MacCurdy, London, 1954, p. 85.