Sitting at breakfast recently reading a magazine, I came across a photo taken by a NASA spacecraft called the Cassini probe, which since 2004 has been orbiting Saturn, exploring the planet and its moons. The entire upper portion of the photo is dominated by the dark arc of one portion of Saturn, and to the right of that, a greenish-gray swath of the planet’s rings. The tightly concentric black and green-gray lines comprising the rings resemble the grooves on an old vinyl record, except that the rings appear to be glowing gently against the black background of space. That dark expanse dominates the center portion of the photo, and at the bottom there’s a ghostly horizonal white stripe that’s either light from an unseen source to the left, or a distant slice of the Milky Way. The image is majestic, peaceful, and kind of eerie.
The sobering thing is that, as explained in the accompanying article, it’s actually a photo of earth from approximately 900 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away. I thought, at first, that the object just to the right of center was a fragment of the english muffin I’d been eating. Indeed, a toasty crumb had fallen on the magazine, so I brushed it off to reveal a minuscule white speck – 1/100th the size of my bread crumb. It looked like a nick in the ink, or a dust mote, but I couldn’t wipe it away. According to the article, that irregular speck is the earth and the infinitesmal bulge on its side is the moon, both as seen from Saturn’s orbit.
Two thoughts came to mind: We are nothing. And we are not alone. If an infininte number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters, and an infinite amount of time could eventually write the entire works of Shakspeare, then there must be untold numbers of other planets with Earth-like life forms spread throughout the inconceivable vastness of the universe. I decided to have another fried egg. What the hell.
But the earth photo was nothing compared to the news a few days later, when NASA made the ultimate “Elvis has left the building” announcement: after 36 years of hurtling through the void at 38,000 miles per hour, the Voyager space probe has exited the solar system and entered interstellar space. It’s now nearly 12 billion miles away, and still sends back minute radio signals using a transmitter with about the same amount of power as a refrigerator light bulb. It takes nearly 17 1/2 hours for the signal to reach Earth, and when it arrives, the wattage striking the antenna is only about 1 part in 10 quadrillion. By comparison, it takes 20 billion times more power than that to operate an electronic digital watch.
Aside from studying the planets and the far reaches of our solar system, Voyager also carries a message for any intelligent life that may find it someday: the Golden Record. This 12-inch diameter, gold-plated, copper audiovisual disk includes 115 images and sounds representative of life on Earth as well as musical selections and spoken greetings in 55 languages. Of course, to play the record, you’d first have to build a record/video disk player, speakers, and display screen. I guess they figured that any life form intelligent enough to snatch this probe from its race through space would be able to figure that out. And the NASA engineers were thoughful enough to include a cartridge and needle you could use to play the record once you’d built the machine to play it on – a good idea, since it’s hard even now, right here on Earth, to get needles and cartridges to play old vinyl LPs.
I thought back to the Cassini photo: if the entire planet is a speck from 900 million miles, aren’t we surely invisible from 12 billion and counting? Compared to the universe, our solar system is smaller than an electron oscillating in one molecule of a hair follicle on the ass of a flea. And if we’re invisible and barely detectable, who’s ever going to find us, even if other intelligent beings are out there? And if they really are out there, why haven’t they sent us their Golden LPs, begging for retrieval and playback?
Keep your eyes open, kids. You never know. And let’s just hope that if the aliens send an 8-track tape with information about their planet, they include the whole device because working 8-track players are even scarcer than record needles.