Michael Benson is an American documentary filmmaker (creator of the critically acclaimed “Predictions of Fire,” an exploration of the propaganda wellsprings of the recent Yugoslav wars) who, several years ago, found himself marooned, for reasons of the heart and presently of happy parenthood, in Ljubljana, Slovenia—whereupon he took to whiling away the lonesome hours by cruising the internet. Or rather, by delving through the rapidly growing, constantly expanding cyber archives of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, the treasure troves of images beamed down by the two Voyager missions (literally hundreds of thousands of them) and the Mars Global Surveyor (six times that many) and all the other space probes (NEAR, Galileo, Pathfinder, Pioneer, and so forth). For months, Benson scoured these public websites, downloading particularly stunning “visions” prized by the space probes and creating his own collage of such marvels, which he then began sharing with others. With Lawrence Weschler, for example, with whom he’d first begun corresponding when Weschler was covering the Balkans for the New Yorker. And with Arthur C. Clarke, the great science-fiction master, whom Benson began visiting in Sri Lanka while working on one of his latest film project, a documentation, in part, of the world’s first zero-gravity theatrical experiment.
When Benson subsequently honed his collection of space-probe photographs into a single volume titled Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (to be published later this month by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), he invited Clarke to write a foreword, and Weschler to respond with an afterword. The texts that follow—almost a debate on the true significance of such imagery—are in turn adapted from those pieces.
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When Michael Benson first came to see me in my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in December of 2001, he asked me about a theme that has reappeared throughout my work—that our species is in its childhood and that a next step of evolution has arrived with space travel. Why hadn’t the promise of that little film that Stanley Kubrick and I put together in the sixties, 2001: A Space Odyssey, been fulfilled? Michael quoted something I had written at that time:
Only the creatures who dared to move from the sea to the hostile, alien land were able to develop intelligence. Now that this intelligence is about to face a still greater challenge, it may be that this beautiful Earth of ours is no more than a brief resting place between the sea of salt and the sea of stars. Now we must venture forth.
I shared his sense of disappointment with the progress that has been achieved. When it comes to crewed space-flight, this is especially true: There is still no Hilton Hotel in orbit (despite the arrival of the first millionaire space tourist to the International Space Station), nor is there a thriving Moon base filled with explorers likely to discover a mysterious alien artifact buried in Clavius Crater. And the recent tragic loss of a space shuttle with all seven of its astronauts underlines that even what we have accomplished can seem tenuous.
A year after his first visit, Michael re-appeared with a beautiful collection of photographs that prove there is no reason to be too disappointed in our progress. These images serve as a spectacular reaffirmation that we are privileged to live in the greatest age of exploration the world has ever known.
Columbus never had it so good. When he set out from Europe he had only a four-thousand-year-old estimate of the circumference of the Earth—and he had cunningly reduced even that in order to make his trip to the “Indies” plausible. As this fantastic collection of pictures demonstrates, when it comes to space—John F. Kennedy’s “new ocean”—we now have far more to go on. In the four decades since Sputnik changed our perception of human capabilities, and in the three since Apollo gave us a new perspective on our planet as seen from space, our robot space probes have charted much of the solar system. Four have now actually left it and are on trajectories leading to the stars. What these intrepid explorers have revealed is even more astounding than we had imagined, back when the best we could do was peer by telescope through the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere at the vaguely glimpsed deserts of Mars or at the four tiny pin-points of light orbiting immense Jupiter.
I only wish that some of my long-gone colleagues at the British Astronomical Association and the Royal Astronomical Society could have seen these pictures! We have indeed taken giant leaps—well beyond Neil Armstrong’s famous “small” step, huge though that was. Or rather, our robot space explorers have taken them for us. When I wrote The Exploration of Space in 1951, I never dreamed that within a decade the first man would have traveled into space; still less did I imagine that within just over two, the first phase of manned lunar exploration would not only have begun—but would also have ended. And yet despite the fact that crewed spacecraft have remained in low Earth orbit ever since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon in 1972, the curtain has indeed been inexorably rising—both on our solar system and on the stars. It has done so through the agency of our sophisticated machines.
Although one day we will no doubt possess technologies allowing us to take a balmy afternoon stroll on the baking plains of Venus if we so choose, for now the only way to examine that planet, or sample the atmosphere of gaseous Jupiter, or descend through the opaque clouds hiding the face of Saturn’s mysterious moon Titan (as will happen when the Cassini mission finally reaches the ringed planet in late 2004, and drops an atmospheric probe on Titan), is with our increasingly autonomous interplanetary robots.
So there’s no reason to regret that the explorations revealed by the sorts of images Benson has collected were conducted by space probes. In fact, we have now reached a fascinating stage in our development as a species—one in which our tools are moving well beyond us. This process has its roots deep in the prehistoric past. About a million years ago, a not particularly impressive primate located somewhere in the African continent discovered that his forelimbs could be used for purposes other than locomotion. Objects such as sticks and stones—or the bone wielded by our proto-human “Moon-watcher” in 2001—could be grasped, and were subsequently useful for killing game, digging up roots, or attacking the neighbors. On the third planet from the Sun, tools had appeared, and the place would never be quite the same again.
As Stanley Kubrick’s remarkable jump-cut from Moon-watcher’s flung bone to an Earth-orbiting satellite eloquently illustrated (in what must surely be the longest flash-forward in the history of the cinema), we have come a long way in the intervening millennia—if not necessarily in our ability to live together peaceably then at least regarding our other abilities. And one thing still not generally understood, but certainly revealed in our film, is that the first users of tools were not men but prehuman anthropoids—and by their discovery they doomed themselves. For even the most simple of tools provides a tremendous mental and physical stimulus to the user. He has to walk upright; he must develop manual dexterity of an increasingly high order. And these, of course, are the specifications of Homo sapiens. As soon as they start to be filled, earlier models are headed for a rapid obsolescence.
The conventional idea that men invented tools is therefore a misleading half-truth; it would be more accurate to say that tools invented man. In the beginning, these tools were very primitive, of course: stone axes or wooden clubs wielded by creatures practically indistinguishable from apes. Yet they led to us—and to the eventual extinction of the ape-men who first used them. And eventually they may lead to the extinction, or the rendering into irrelevance, of our species of primate as well.
Indeed, the tools we have invented—not least these probes, many launched from the same pads that Neil Armstrong and his brother humanoids used to reach the Moon three decades ago—may well turn out to be our successors. Biological evolution has been replaced by a far more rapid technological evolution. So that sentence may one day read: tools invented man, who invented new tools, which replaced him.
It’s interesting to note how this possible evolutionary process from Homo sapiens to Machina sapiens is both predicted and mirrored in the brief history of space flight. The first true space probe, Sputnik-2, carried scientific instruments but also a dog, Laika. Although the unfortunate creature was doomed, later Soviet capsules returned their dogs back to Earth, and early American flights sent a succession of chimpanzees into orbit, which were also recovered. It was only after these domesticated descendants of prairie coyotes and wolves, and then our jungle primate relatives, were returned safely to Earth that humans were first launched into space. And ever since the last lunar landings, it has been only our machines that have departed the Earth for other worlds. (Yes, for over a generation, no human has ventured beyond a few hundred kilometers in Earth orbit.) It would be far too remarkable a coincidence if this pattern wasn’t telling us something important.
Of course the idea that the machine is going to take over, or might try to do so, is one of science fiction’s oldest clichés, and dates back through Capek’s RUR, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the Faust legend, to the mysterious figure of Daedalus, King Minos’s one-man Office of Scientific Research, who may not have been a wholly mythical figure. So 2001’s HAL-9000 had ancestors that were both distinguished and disreputable, and although we still have not built a computer like it, we already know it can be done.
The fact that most contemporary computers are still high-speed half-wits, capable of doing little more than what is carefully programmed into them, has given people a false sense of security. Michael Benson is right to locate the potential beginnings of a next evolutionary step in the successful deployment of robots like the space probes. If you don’t believe in the creative capabilities of these machines, look at these photographs—and talk to world chess champion Gary Kasparov, whose defeat by IBM’s Deep Blue is already regarded as a turning point in history.
The argument that originality and creativity are solely human attributes reminds me of those whip-cracking buggy drivers who used to make fun of broken-down Model Ts. And yet despite the evidence provided by these pictures, which are surely some of the greatest landscape photographs ever taken, many will refuse to grant any degree of intelligence or creativity to these robots. But the sooner we acknowledge this, the better. Even now, we are developing machines that can learn from experience, profit from their mistakes, and—unlike human beings—never repeat them. There are intelligent machines that do not sit passively waiting for instructions, but explore the world—or worlds—around them in a manner which can only be called inquisitive. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which designed many of the probes that took these photographs, is working on innovative designs featuring “arms” with metal “bones” sheathed in quasi-organic “muscles”—and in which the extended “fingers” will have something very much like nerve endings. And this is only the beginning.
So we need look no further for the famous “missing link”—it is us. As Nietzsche said, Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman—a rope across the abyss. It may be that intelligence and creativity can only arise from organic life, because only living creatures, by their very nature, can evolve from simple to complex organisms. It is a little difficult to see how a lifeless planet could progress directly from metal ores and mineral deposits to electronic computers by its own unaided efforts. But though intelligence and creativity can arise only from life, they may then learn to do without the fragile organic substrate that they now require. And the greatest single stimulus to the evolution of mechanical intelligence is the challenge of space.
Only an exceedingly small percentage of the universe is directly accessible to mankind, in the sense that we can live there without elaborate mechanical protections. If we generously assume that humanity’s potential Lebensraum extends over the whole Earth and reaches from sea level to an altitude of three miles, that gives us a total of some half-billion cubic miles. It sounds like a lot, particularly given that the entire human race could be packed into a cube a few miles on each side. But it is a vanishingly tiny amount when set against capital-“s” Space. Our current telescopes, which are certainly not the last word on the subject, sweep a volume at least a million-million-million-million-million-million-million-million-million-million times greater.
Such a number is utterly beyond the conception of our fragile organic brains, of course—though not necessarily of our microchip-based ones—but it can be given a vivid meaning. If we reduced the known universe to the size of the Earth, then the portion in which we can live without protection is about the size of a single atom.
Even if we organic humans do colonize other “atoms” in that immense volume of known space, it will be at the cost of tremendous technical efforts, because most of our energies will be devoted to protecting our frail and sensitive bodies against the extremes of temperature, pressure, or gravity found in space and on other worlds. Within very wide limits, machines are indifferent to these extremes. And more importantly, they can wait patiently through the years and centuries that will be needed for travel to the far reaches of the universe.
We creatures of flesh and blood can and will explore space—setbacks like the recent Columbia tragedy notwithstanding. And thanks to the probes, we have a much better idea of what we will encounter there than did Columbus or Magellan. But it may be that only creatures of metal and plastic can ever really conquer it, as they have already started doing. The tiny brains of our Voyagers and Pathfinders barely hint at the mechanical intelligence that will one day be launched at the stars. H. G. Wells famously wrote that the choice was the universe—or nothing. But he didn’t specify that it was necessarily our choice to make—nor did he exclude the possibility that the choice might be made in exactly the form that our robots are pioneering.
The sheer aesthetic value of such pictures gives me another idea. It may well be that only in space, confronted with environments fiercer and more complex than any to be found upon this planet, will intelligence and creativity be able to reach their fullest potential. Like other qualities, they are developed through struggle and conflict. In ages to come, dullards and the uninspired may remain on placid old Earth, while real genius and the adventurous will flourish in space—the realm of the machine, not of flesh and blood.
Exactly forty years ago, in Profiles of the Future, I first published my Third Law, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Finally our mechanical offspring may outgrow our narrow definition of intelligence, and pass onward to goals wholly incomprehensible to us. It will then be they, not us, who will complete the millennia-long trajectory from the sea of salt to the sea of stars. When the time comes, the descendants of the marvelous machines that took these pictures will head out into intergalactic space looking for new frontiers, leaving us once more the masters of the Solar System they first revealed to us.
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Pop quiz in seventh grade English. The teacher has her class address a simple question in the form of an impromptu essay: What is the purpose of human existence on earth? And she gives the kids fifteen minutes.
She gets a variety of responses, and one of them, from an at-that-time eleven-year-old girl (who, for the purposes of this essay, we will call my daughter, Sara), goes like this:
WHY IS THE HUMAN ON EARTH?
I believe that there is, despite the fact that we humans have done so much damage to the world, a reason for our existence on this planet. I think we are here because the universe, with all it’s wonder and balance and logic, needs to be marveled at, and we are the only species (to our knowledge) that has the ability to do so. We are the one species that does not simply except what is around us, but also asks why it is around us, and how it works. We are here because without us here to study it, the amazing complexity of the world would be wasted. And finally, we are here because the universe needs an entity to ask why it is here.
Which, I think you’ll agree, is not at all bad, as such answers go. I mean, it took Kant three thick volumes to get to just about the same place. And the pertinence of such comments (any minor grammatical or orthographic misprisions notwithstanding) to Michael Benson’s portfolio of space probe images could hardly be more manifest.
Wonder and balance and logic, indeed—to which one might add beauty and grace. But all of it—and this is Sara’s crucial insight—all of it is for naught (or at any rate for naught in terms of “wonder” and “balance” and “logic” and “beauty” and “grace”) without the necessarily fragile and puny and utterly contingent human gaze.
The thing is, I think Arthur Clarke and the hearty band of futurists whose thinking he echoes in some of the notions one often finds him advancing, get it all wrong. (Gloriously, thrillingly, even inspiringly wrong—but wrong nonetheless.) Not so much in the claim that “these probes… may well turn out to be our successors,” with Homo sapiens giving way to Machina sapiens (carbon-based life, as I’ve heard the contention parsed elsewhere, giving way to its silicon-based successor). Could be. Hope not, but I don’t know.
No, where Clarke & Company (a company which I sometimes sense includes our marvelous host and curator Benson as well) really go wrong is in a somewhat more subtle side-claim. “Despite the evidence of these pictures, which surely must constitute some of the greatest landscape photographs ever seen, many,” Clarke asserts (referring, I take it, to such Luddite Neanderthals as myself) “will refuse to grant any degree of intelligence or creativity to these robots. But the sooner we acknowledge this,” he goes on, “the better. Even now we are developing machines that can learn from experience, profit from their mistakes and—unlike human beings—never repeat them.” And then a few sentences further along, clarifying his evolutionary point (and cleverly preempting my first stumbling attempts at a riposte): “It is a little difficult to see how a lifeless planet could progress directly from metal ores and mineral deposits to electronic computers by its own unaided efforts. But though intelligence and creativity can arise only from life, they may then learn to do without the fragile organic substrate that they require.” And that’s where he loses me.
Granted: An entity capable of learning from experience and profiting from its mistakes may be said to evince a kind of intelligence and maybe even of creativity. But that sort of intelligence or creativity is not the fundamental bedrock of human consciousness. What about awe—surely the overwhelming reaction called forth by the merely human experience of images such as these? We are here, in the words of my daughter, because without us here to study it, the amazing complexity of the world would be wasted. And the way that amazing, ravishing complexity is experienced among humans is through the sense of awe—precisely the sense (and perhaps in the end, the only one) that machines and probes may themselves never prove capable of replicating.
Sartre, following in the footsteps of Heidegger and Husserl in his 1943 tome Being and Nothingness, famously parsed existence between the In-Itself and the For-Itself, the In-Itself simply being everything, as it were, that is—all material reality (the world, the oceans, the continents, all the plants and animals, all the planets and stars, the vacuum between the stars, all the atoms and the spaces between atoms, the brimming plenitude of being, and yes, as part of all that, we ourselves in our mode of being as material objects, subject to all the prods and pressures of material reality). Of the In-Itself, it could be said that everything that is is the way a rock is a rock: It just is. The For-Itself, by contrast, was Sartre’s way of evoking the notion of Consciousness: Being to varying degrees aware of itself with stirrings, longings, and so forth on its own behalf. Note that Sartre didn’t limit the notion of Consciousness to human beings—all consciousness, however initially inchoate, partakes of the same existential reality, a reality notably unlike that of a rock, a reality that never simply is what it is, that as much as it may aspire to such a state of plenitude and satiety is continually falling short and falling away. At various points in his argument, Sartre seems to equate the In-Itself with the “Being” of his title and the For-Itself with its “Nothingness.” And all existence for-itself is by definition fragile, mortal, utterly contingent (it never had to be here, it will inevitably pass away): Being, in that sense, hurtling (to varying degrees aware of such) toward death.
In these (admittedly over-simplified) terms, I would suggest that the primordial precondition for the experience of marvel or awe is that very “fragile organic substrate” which Clarke and his conceptual fellow-travelers so cavalierly dismiss on their merry conceptual dash toward that Machina sapiens nirvana. The planets and the probes as such are alike in partaking exclusively of the Domain of the In-Itself. For all its whirring gadgetry, a probe in itself is in the end precisely the way a rock is a rock, and nothing more. It can be directed to aim and focus and snap and transmit, it can even be directed over time to direct itself to aim and focus and snap and transmit all the more efficiently, but it cannot be directed to experience awe. And awe—marvel, wonder—surely this is the overriding lesson of the experience of Benson’s trove of images—these, in the end, are what matter; these, in the end, are what count.
The story goes that the incomparable Buckminster Fuller was asked one day, near the end of his life, whether he was finally disappointed, having done so much to bring about the era of space travel, at how he himself would never be able to experience outer space. To which the old man magisterially replied, “But, Sir, we are in outer space.”
The artist David Hockney, who’s the one who first told me the Fuller story, went on that day to observe how he himself could never seem to get interested in space movies. “They always seem to be about transport and nothing else,” he insisted. “Well, transport is not going to be able to take us to the edge of the universe—it’s like relying on buses—though a certain awareness in our heads might.”
Space probes as entities on their own soaring out there experiencing the universe in all its stupefying splendor? I suppose so: maybe. But in another sense (Hockney’s sense), they’re merely highly souped-up, hyper-elaborated glasses: bifocals at the far end of seemingly endlessly elongating tethers. Interesting in and of themselves (and in fairness, of course, far more than that: fascinating, astonishing; objects themselves of drop-jawed marvel and awe for the sophistication of their workings, and, maybe even more so, the sheer audacity of their conception)—but in the end, simply extensions of something far more astonishing: the fragile human capacity—nay, propensity—to gaze and marvel.
Such that space probe photos afford a veritable layer cake of wonder. The splendor of the heavenly bodies themselves, of course. Why is there anything, ask the philosophers, with their very first originary question, rather than simply just nothing at all? To which might now be added: And why—however possibly could there be—anything as stupendously, improbably, and heart-rendingly lovely as this? But that last formulation in turn opens out upon a greater wonder still, the shivering, shimmering ghost at the heart of the great machine: Given that there is something rather than nothing, why, how does it come to be (after all, how easily could it never have come to be!) (and how terrifyingly easily could it all yet cease to be) that embedded in its midst there is something capable of becoming aware of, let alone appreciating, all that splendor?
And the fragility, the sheer puny contingency of that second something, as against the vast plodding immensity of the first—the infinite algebra of that relation—that (and here I find myself coming into humble agreement with my little daughter) is the wondrous cosmic chord that keeps getting sounded across the pages of Benson’s marvelous, endlessly proliferating collection of photos.
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