Tuesday, April 12, 2011

T + 50: At Home in the Universe

Today, April 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the flight of Vostok 1, which made Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first human being in space. For half a century now, Homo sapiens has been a spacefaring species, the first earthly creature to venture beyond the atmosphere of this planet into what we call "outer space", which is of course almost the whole of physical reality. It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that we have always been in space, and that Yuri was the first human to leap off the tiny dust particle that we perceive as "the world" and to float apart from it for a spectacular, brief moment, alone in the inconceivably immense, dark sea of which our world is but an infinitesimally small part.

In those days, space flight was imbued with the aura of wonder, the way the world is when we are young children. It was perhaps inevitable that the glow would fade with time. Yet the disappearance of magic from the world, which we perceive as the product of maturing vision, like eyes adjusting to the bright light of day, is only an illusion. Adulthood does bring certain types of clarity, the corrective lenses of age that help us outgrow simplistic or simply false ideas. But age also brings blindness, and one does not need to be very old at all to have become blinded to the wonder and the beauty, the mystery and the majesty of the world we live in. It is still there, just as surely as it was when we were very young; it is we who have changed and become unable to see its luster.

Such has been the fate of space travel. Our space probes have beamed back a multitude of workmanlike photos of planets and moons, revealing these once-mysterious worlds to be as exotic and interesting as vacant lots. But this too is an illusion. It is like looking up one's childhood home and yard on Google Maps and seeing it revealed as the most plain, ordinary, and unremarkable place on earth, worlds removed from the happy, magical kingdom that you know it was.

The question is: which contains more truth and reality? The objective facts provided by the cold, detached view of science (or Google), or the subjective thoughts and feelings that make up our human response to reality? The mere facts about the world, like the dry recitations of an accountant, or the rich, meaningful experiences we have of the world, the stuff that makes up memories and dreams?

Outer space is still there, above our heads, its unfathomable depths miraculously visible to us on clear nights, when we can simply look up and with our own eyes behold stars that we could never reach even if we traveled at the speed of light for a thousand years. The amazing thing is not so much that we can now, by the aid of our advanced technology, travel upward in a feeble attempt to reach those stars, as the fact that we are already there. For, of course, we are already, and always have been, in the universe. The exciting thing about space travel is not that we are venturing "into" space, as though we had previously been outside of it, but simply that we are exploring it, finally beginning to experience more than just one tiny little speck floating in the vast ocean.

It is the objective, scientific view that sees the truth that our globe is a vanishingly small part of everything that is. But the childlike vision that takes in more of reality than the sober "realism" of adulthood knows a deeper truth: that significance has nothing to do with size, and that the earth we live on is incredibly interesting and important. The immensity of space does not diminish its stature, but only makes us realize that beyond the wide earth, the world we call home is a far bigger and more wondrous place than we could ever imagine.