“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.


A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”

Here the great age opens.  Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of science — no, more than that, the great collective work of art of the twentieth century.

J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 330


When I was twelve years old I watched a most remarkable television program.  This program did not so much change my life — I was twelve, just barely conscious of a life as something my own — as it set the primary intellectual course of my life.  My parents generously bought me the big book that was basically a transcript of the show.  I have treasured that book for forty years.

I’ve recently finished a reread of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and I found it an exhilarating, inspiring experience again.  But the sweetness is tempered by a sad and tragic bitterness on which I will touch.  Bronowski’s gentle, wise voice confirms the reality of what I am always nostalgic for: a time when the “developed” world valued science, when evolution was not a battle ground, when pseudo-sciences like astrology were a joke or entertainment, like today’s reality television or Fox News.  I am always nostalgic for a time I remember when knowledge was something to be strived for through science, and belief was expected by all to be challenged.

I’ve mentioned to friends that I feel today as though at the moment I started studying the Middle Ages in 1980, the world around me began an intellectual rush backward to that very time.  This backward rush is exactly something Bronowski dreaded and perhaps expected:

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts.  Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.  You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.  That is really crucial today.  You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming.  And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.  The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.   p. 436-7

We sit now with eleven years left in the half-century Bronowski mentions.  Will the schoolbook commonplaces be those necessary to our existence?  I wonder.

If it were to be dropped by his own, Bronowski expected the torch to be lifted by another culture:

We are a scientific civilisation: that means, a civilisation in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial.  Science is only a Latin word for knowledge.  If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China . . .  p. 437

When I look around the world today, I’m not sure the torch will be held high again any time soon, anywhere.

Science as Art

In Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul cautions us all of the rise of the technocratic class, the Men of Reason who have come to be humanity’s actual rulers.  It may seem that Bronowski, in his celebration of the great discoveries of scientists, is promoting the sort of technocratic rule Saul asks us to struggle against. But, The Ascent of Man is not some sort of technocratic celebration of the rise of white coated Analytical Man.  Rather, Bronowski is emphatic that Science is nothing, cannot exist, except as engagement with humanity as a whole:

the aristocracy of the intellect is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation we know.  If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect.  We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed.  And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.  p. 435


. . . the intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists.  And that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness.  But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism.  We shall be left without belief, because no beliefs can be built up in this century that are not based on science as the recognition of the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works.  It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.  p. 429-432

I can’t help but notice that today there has been a resurgence of belief based not on science, but on rejection of science, from anti-vaxers, to climate change deniers, to chem trailers and to all the various shapes and stripes of New Age philosophies, health plans, diets and conspiracy theories.  Bronowski warns us against such rejection:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.  That is false, tragically false.  Look for yourself.  This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was not done by gas.  It was done by arrogance.  It was done by dogma.  It was done by ignorance.  When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.  In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness.  We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.  We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.  We have to touch people.  p. 374

Science is not absolute knowledge. In fact, Bronowski argues that the method of Science is the method of Art, indeed, in the epigram at the head of this post, that Science is Art, that Art is Science.

. . . We are aware that these pictures do not so much fix the face as explore it; that the artist is tracing the detail almost as if by touch; and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but never makes it final.  We accept that as the method of the artist.

But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge.  There is no absolute knowledge.  p. 353

As long as I can remember, I have felt no distinction between art and science, these two unnecessarily separated fields of human, endeavour, exploration and discovery.  Reading The Ascent of Man today is like tasting again the intellectual mother’s milk that fed the child that is the father of this man.

I’ve mentioned, probably too often, that as a child I discovered the poetry of Yeats in a book of science by Shklovskii and Sagan.  Just today I discovered that the BBC producer, Adrian Malone,  and one director, David Kennard, of The Ascent of Man a short time later produced Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Another piece of the puzzle of my own intellectual development fell into place.

The 1970s, the years of all but the first, childish part of my schooling, were years of Science as Art as Science and Art as Science as Art.  And they were years of hope.  Humans walked on the moon, space stations, Salyuts and Skylab, were in orbit, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had shaken hands in the Apollo-Soyuz docking adapter.  In my little world, I watched Residential School survivor Alex Janvier paint a magnificent mural in the government building across the street from my school.  In that same building I learned the rudiments of television production.  Paolo Soleri’s monumental, inspiring, and perhaps absurd Arcology: The City in the Image of Man was on the very full shelves of my High School Library.  When I was able to, I bought my own copy of Soleri’s book:


Here, in this scientific/artistic ferment of hope for humanity, my intellect was formed.  Sometime later I discovered the work of Hugh Ferriss, a purveyor of human scientific/artistic hope of a previous generation to mine.

A few years before the revelation of The Ascent of Man I had watched Lord Clark’s Civilisation.  I’m watching it again now as I write.  Although I later studied and published on the very periods Clark discusses in his series, I don’t think it was then, and it certainly is not now, in any great way, inspiring.  Why is it that Clark’s Civilisation, while a brilliant presentation of culture, has so little to inspire the child I was and perhaps still am? And why is Bronowski’s program, in spite of a few flaws of prejudice or fact, such a powerful spur to my desire to learn in every waking minute?

My immediate explanation:

Bronowski provides a play-by-play of Humanity’s physical and cultural evolution, with the clear emphasis being on the fact that the life of Humanity, the Ascent of Man, is a never ending game.  Meanwhile, Clark gives a dry description of the footprints and blood stains in the sand after the players have gone to the dressing rooms in the completed stadium we call Civilisation.  The game that continues in Bronowski’s world is long ended in the world of Clark.  Perhaps it doesn’t help that Lord Sir Kenneth Clark is a stiff and stuffy Englishman of ossified privilege.  Dr. Jacob Bronowski, on the other hand, is a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who, in spite of the horrors of his century, retains a stunning, arresting hope in the continuing rise of human knowledge, wisdom, and morality.  Interestingly, the great art critic seems cold, to have little human sensitivity while the mathematician/scientist exudes wisdom, hope, generosity, warmth and, in all of the best ways, humanity.

And, diagnostically, Clark says in the last episode: “I know next to nothing about science. . . ”

Whither the Humanities?

There has been much soul-searching of late in the Academic Humanities about the supposed fading of the importance to society at large of the arts of living in a free society — the Liberal Arts.  “Where is the Niel DeGrasse Tyson of the Humanities?” is a question that was asked after the launch of the new, Tyson-hosted, version of Sagan’s Cosmos.  Well, if a previous generation’s experience is any indication, the Humanities’ Tyson today will be a Bronowski rather than a Clark, perhaps a scientist rather than a cultural scholar.  If the Humanities want to inspire they must tell the world what they drive Humanity toward, not just whence Humanity has come.

Bronowski shows us a glow of this future road.  But, I feel, with horror, that we seem to be heading down a dark turning he anticipated:

And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into — into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.  They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it.  An understanding of man himself.  We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.  Knowledge is our destiny.  Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.  p. 437

Knowledge, ever broadening but never complete, is our destiny, if we don’t lose our nerve.  If we lose our nerve, if we become complacent in our ignorance, or worse, in a feeling of absolute certainty, then we are lost to the rule the dictators, the autocrats and the technocrats who have concerns far different from the well-being of humanity.

Brownowski concludes The Ascent of Man with a behind-the-scenes note on the making of the television series.  On the morning of the day the first words of the series were to be filmed, a camera plane crashed.  Remarkably, the pilot, cameraman and sound technician emerged shaken but unhurt.  I will close with Bronowski’s words of hope for our continued progress into the future, despite the momentary set backs of ignorance, reactionarianism, or plane crashes:

…naturally the ominous event made a deep impression on me.  Here was I preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put its hand through the printed page of history and said, ‘It is here. It is now.’ History is not events, but people.   And it is not just people remembering, it is people acting and living their past in the present.  History is the pilot’s instant act of decision, which crystalises all the knowledge, all the science, all that has been learned since man began.

We sat about in the camp for two days waiting for another plane.  And I said to the cameraman, kindly, though perhaps not tactfully, that he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air.  He said, ‘I’ve thought of that.  I’m going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I’m going to do the filming. It’s what I have to do.’

We are all afraid — for our confidences, for the future, for the world.  That is the nature of the human imagination.  Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.  The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.  p. 438

A Shout Out to the Planetary Society

It’s been about half a year now since I started throwing my thoughts out from Behind the Hedge (someday I may explain the blog title) and apart from a few hints and passing references, something fundamental has been missing:  Science.

When I was just tiny, a few years before watching Neil Armstrong smudge his way down that shadowy ladder with the really big step at the bottom, I poured over my father’s National Geographic Magazines, enthralled by two things:  the explorations of the sea, mostly by Jacques Cousteau, and the planned exploration of space, mostly by NASA.  When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did, remembering the excitement of my childhood, was to get my own subscription to National Geographic Magazine.  Sometime later, my father handed over all his back issues stretching back to the mid-1950s.  Now I have almost sixty years of the things and I remain subscribed, although the sense of adventure has faded quite a bit.  Over and over I say to each month’s issue “You climbed a whole mountain!  Wow!  Did you know there’s a bunch of old men over there who WALKED ON THE MOON before you were born?!  And they got there in what amounts to little more than a  Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of big bombs strapped to the back of it!!”

Shortly after the moon landing, I took Charles Coombs’ Project Apollo out of the school library and then made my father order me my own copy from some bookstore in downtown Sudbury, Ontario.  I still have that book.  I spent my days making.  I made sharks out of plasticene and (strangly square) Saturn V rockets — complete with lunar module concealed in the top of the third stage — out of Lego.  And I craftily built the lunar module upside down so that it could dock with the command module.

Guess how I was turned onto the poetry of Yeats when I was in junior high school.

An epigram to a chapter in Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii was a bit from Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus”:

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands
I’ll find out where she has gone
and kiss her lips and take her hands
and walk among long dappled grass
and pluck till time and times are done
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun

And wither the threads from that poem through my life?

I reverently lifted one line for one of my few published (very obscurely published) bits of verse:

. . . on broken roads which lead nowhere
I search for unknown goals
through hollow lands and hilly lands
sun burning on my back . . .

I suspect that Yeats, together with a well timed visit to the banks of the River Wye, lead me to Wordsworth who was so obviously a pleasant uncle (but not a “funny uncle”, despite Ken Russell’s Clouds of Glory which quite probably led me to Tom Stoppard, charmingly guided by Felicity Kendall) to the child who was the father of the man I am.

And what about art?  I suspect that a strange meeting in my adolescent mind between Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and David Hardy’s The Challenge of the Stars put me on that road.

As a barely-past-tween, when I privately decided that painting was to be one of my lives, my first purchase was a big tube of Mars Black, because all I was going to paint was David Hardyesque space scenes.  Now I buy huge jars of titanium white and very, very rarely buy a small tube of some very traditional earth pigment, and hardly ever use black.  On the surface, my painting owes more to pre-modern traditions than to the Space Age  But, when I honestly consider things, scientific exploration — which I consider art- and literary-criticism to be — is the only thing that makes me passionate. High School acquaintances told me later in life that they thought I’d follow a science path.  Nope.  Anglo-Saxon poetry for me.

Where did that come from?

A long, long time ago I held a copy of  The Lord of the Rings in my hands in a Public Library in Windsor, Ontario and said to myself “This looks like a cheap rip-off of the Narnia stories.”  In hindsight, I was an idiot at that moment, but, fortunately, my mother reintroduced Tolkien to me for a third time — I had, without making the connection, spent a moment with “Smith of Wooton Major” in some elementary school classroom.  Tolkien made me learn Old English and learning Old English vastly improved my understanding of language and poetry.  After five years, two degrees, and a couple of publications, I left formal academia behind, again to the surprise of professors and colleagues.

Now, decades later, I subscribe to five publications:  The Old English Newsletter, which arrives at odd intervals; Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver) which comes bimonthly as near as I can figure; the comfortable old National Geographic; Scientific American; and the increasingly infrequent Planetary Report, which is a part of the real point of this post.  Except for the Old English Newsletter, I read every issue of these magazines from cover to cover.  In fact, I first subscribed to Scientific American after reading Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ mention that he, too, read that magazine from cover to cover every month.  To me, all five magazines are about understanding the world and my place in it.

But, the Planetary Report is a voice from and to my childhood.  If you haven’t heard of this wonderful little publication, it is the newsletter of the Planetary Society, a think tank/lobbying organization/fanclub/cult/bunch of really varied and smart people founded by one of the smartest, Carl Sagan and two friends three decades ago with the sole and noble purpose of teaching people that space exploration is beautiful, inspiring, artistic, fascinating, gobsmackingly neat and absurdly inexpensive considering the wonders, both practical and human, it returns and, even more, considering the insane obsenities we spend obscene amounts of our labour and humanity on.

Early supporters were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury, before his death intervened, was scheduled to be a part of a little Planetary Society get-together in a few days.  The Planetary Society is perhaps the ultimate geek club — “I’m making space exploration happen!!!”, but for over three decades this bunch of ordinary and extraordinary people has quietly, soberly, and doggedly pushed governments to push the boundaries of knowledge and pushed the boundaries of knowledge themselves during times when governments have been remarkably loathe to learn much of anything.

Today the Planetary Society’s CEO is Bill Nye (yeah, that Science Guy) and has a remarkable  board of directors, including Niel deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and the coolest astrophysicist ever (“that black guy from PBS” as one friend of mine describes him.  Sometimes Canadians can be a little too blunt.)

Some of the Advisory Council of the Society are artists, writers, Star Trek actors and, yes, one of them is an old man who has WALKED ON THE MOON!! After travelling there in what amounts to a Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of bombs strapped to the back!!

The latest issue of the Planetary Report closes with a poem and a beautiful piece of art of the sort my thirteen year old self dreamed of painting.  Inside there are stories about urban Dark Skies efforts, about the Mars Science Laboratory which should land on Mars in a few days (it’s about the size of a Volkswagen Kombi, but the technology has advanced a bit), about near-Earth asteroids and extra-Solar planets.  And there are projects for kids.

Projects for kids.  One of the finest things the Planetary Society has done over the years, finer than sending digital copies of classic Science Fiction literature and art to Mars, finer than launching member-financed space missions, finer even than sending my name (and those of thousands of other Society members) to Saturn — about the finest, noblest thing the Society has done is to encourage young people to dream, to learn, and to achieve.  The Planetary Society provides grants to young scientists, to amateur scientists around the world.  The Society has provided brilliantly creative teenagers the opportunity to conduct real scientific investigation with robots on mars — hands on!

Although U.S. based, the Planetary Society is Planetary, with members around the world and making efforts to work with space agencies of all countries.  The societies grants are available to any nationality, its student outreach is global.

And, once a year they have this thing they call “Planetfest” in Pasadena and at science centres all over the planet.   A whole huge crowd of dreamers, scientists, poets, artists, writers get together to look up at the sky and say

“Wow.  Just Wow.”


“Thank you, Carl.”

This year Planetfest happens in just a few days, August 4th and 5th, timed to watch the landing of The Mars Science Laboratory.

I’ve never attended as I am, perhaps ironically in the context of the Planetary Society, a bit of a homebody, but if there were ever a crowd I’d have a laugh being a part of, it would be this one.  I’m not recruiting for the Society.  I’m not suggesting that anyone who might read this should run out and buy a membership (although that would be fine, if the fit is right).  What I am interested in doing is letting people know that the Planetary Society exists, what it’s for,  and what sort of person ends up as a member.

I am a working artist, a lover of theatre, a reader of poetry, and absolutely the most inspiring thing I can imagine is exactly what the Planetary Society was created to do and exactly what Art, Theatre and Poetry are for: to help us all to understand where we are in this inconceivably huge existence.

It’s a perfect fit.

Update, September 4, 2012:  A few days ago I was having a silly conversation about googling one’s self and I came across this brief blog post by Charlie Loyd in which Carl Sagan and I are associated through a fairly obscure aspect of Old English poetry.  It seems I have come full circle, in a sense: inspired to poetry  by Carl Sagan as a child and then associated with him through poetry much later in life.  It is a funny old Cosmos, isn’t it?