On Space and Loneliness

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

Taxi Driver’s principle character Travis Bickle outlines these very principles as espoused by the great American author (who I happen to be a big fan of) Thomas Wolfe. Loneliness is a derivative of several complex emotions which arise within the spheres of our consciousness. This article however will not stress on our individual perspective of loneliness but rather a collective sense of loneliness, i.e. the feeling that we could be the only civilization to breed conscious life in a whole goddamn universe.

In 1961, Frank Drake, in his very famous equation, discussed the possibility of the existence of the extraterrestrial beings and our chances of actually finding them and making contact with them. This was not to quantify the number of civilizations in the universe but rather a way to stimulate scientific dialogue on the search for extraterrestrial beings. It is just an estimation technique which is popularly known in the scientific community as the Fermi Problem. It provides a back-of-the-envelope solution to the entire problem at hand. The Drake equation features 7 unknown parameters which can be treated as variables in order to find an answer. This includes variables like the number of civilisations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone); the average rate of star formation in our galaxy; the fraction of those stars that have planets; the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets; and so on.

The inspirations behind these variables was actually an article in the Nature journal that was provocatively titled: “Searching for Interstellar Communications”. One of the first known attempts to connect with the extraterrestrial beings was made by the 1977 American Scientific program that employed the use of 2 robotic satellite probes, namely, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, respectively. It was actually intended to study the outer solar system, i.e. the outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It was launched under conditions of a favourable alignment of the four planets. The initial plan was to study the four planets, but currently, the Voyagers explore the outer boundary of the heliosphere in interstellar space and the mission has been extended way above it’s time.

The spacecrafts contain very advanced technological instruments in order to collect and transmit proper, accurate data back home. The Voyagers have stabilized guidance systems, controlled by computers, to point their high gain antennas to Earth for efficient transfer of important results and data. The message transmission is also helped by the use of an electronic photography system which has been an instrumental part of the satellites. One thing of immense interest in the spacecraft, however, is the Voyager Golden Record. These records are phonograph records which contain sounds and images , “selected to portray the diversity and culture on Earth” to any intelligent extraterrestrial life that may come across it. Carl Sagan, the renowned astrophysicist who was allocated the duty to decide which records to include on the disk noted that “the spacecrafts will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space”. But the launching of this “bottle” into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on our planet.

Carl Sagan chose and assembled 115 images and varieties of natural sounds. There are collections of songs and spoken greetings and printed messages from the likes of US President Jimmy Carter and UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. It includes an inspirational message which is “per aspera ad astra” or “ through hardships to the stars”, which is what this entire struggle of choices is supposed to signify. There are several photographs from the notable photographer Ansel Adams along with the recorded brain waves of Ann Druyan.

However, one song which resonates with this entire struggle is the simple choice of a gospel blues song written and performed by American musician Blind Willie Johnson that was recorded in 1927. The song was named: “Dark was the Night. Cold was the Ground”. It is basically an instrumental song with the self-taught slide style used by Willie and accompanied by his moaning and humming. Johnson was not blind when he was born, but it is speculated that he was blinded by his stepmother when was only 7 years old. Apparently, during an argument, she splashed Willie with a caustic solution of lye water which ended up permanently blinding him. However, that was not the end of his suffering. He used to perform on the streets and had a tin cup tied to his neck to collect money. During his career, he was praised for his style which became quite popular but he was never financially well off. Post the Great Depression, his audience was completely wiped off, and he never recorded again. And in strange series of circumstances in 1945, his home got destroyed in a fire and he continued to live within the ruins of his house, where he was exposed to humidity and dampness, following which he contracted Malaria. His health steadily worsened due to several other factors and hospitals were not willing to admit him owing to his visual impairment.

He passed away on September 18, 1945. His life has been a true testimony of his song, which has immortalized humankind’s search to cure loneliness. His song truly represents the primal feeling which we all have, whether individually or collectively, for a greater purpose and a direction to every event. Floating in the endless space, it represents a sign of hope and a possibility on how loneliness could be a feature which could give us a new path to our existence. But maybe being alone is not bad after all. Maybe we could all be God’s lonely men. I guess we simply need a few aliens to tell us what the truth is.

Udayon Sen

Udayon Sen is an aspiring polymath who adores Michael Stevens but certainly has better hair than him (hopefully). He studies Computer Engineering, along with every other course he can study, just to accumulate enough for himself to spread the word.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.