“Just as the topology of space is at odds with everyday human experience, the ‘time’ of space is utterly foreign.”
Last week, we celebrated 35 years since the Voyager that gave us Pale Blue Dot launched into space, carrying the ultimate mixtape of humanity’s sounds, itself a record of how Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan fell in eternal love. It was designed to spiral out into the cosmos for billions of years, bound to long outlast the Pyramids of Giza and the cave paintings of Lascaux and, along with more than 800 of its subsequent satellite brethren than circle Earth today, become humanity’s longest-lasting artifacts — until, 4.5 billion years from now, the Sun expands into an all-consuming red giant and devours them all.
Inspired by cave paintings, Sagan’s Golden Record, and nuclear waste warning signs, MIT artist-in-residence Trevor Paglen set out to create a collection of 100 images, commissioned by public art organization Creative Time, to be etched onto an ultra-archival, golden silicon disc and sent into orbit onboard the Echostar XVI satellite this month — at once a time-capsule of the present and a message to the future. The Last Pictures (public library), a fine addition to these essential books on time, gathers the 100 images, alongside four years’ worth of fascinating interviews Paglen conducted with scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, and artists exploring the inherent tensions of our civilization as it brushes up against profound questions about existence, impermanence, and deep time.
About four billion years from now, the Sun will have burned through most of its hydrogen and will start powering itself with helium. When that happens, our star will swell to become a red giant swallowing the earth (and any lingering geosynchronous satellites).But four billion years is a long time from now. For a bit of perspective, four billion years is about sixteen times further into the future than the advent of the dinosaurs was in the past; it is four times longer than the history of complex multicellular organisms on earth. Four billion years is almost as far in the future as the formation of planet Earth is in the past. When [theorist] Jim Oberg points out that space is ‘unearthly,’ he’s right in more ways than he meant. Just as the topology of space is at odds with everyday human experience, the ‘time’ of space is utterly foreign.
Placing a satellite into geosynchronous orbit means placing it into the deep and alien time of the cosmos itself. What, if anything, does it mean that the spacecraft we build are undoubtedly humankind’s longest-lasting material legacy?
What does it mean that, in the near or far future, there will be no evidence of human civilization on the earth’s surface, but our planet will remain perpetually encircled by a thin ring of long-dead spacecraft? Perhaps it means nothing. Or perhaps the idea of meaning itself breaks down in the vastness of time.
On the other hand, what would happen if one of our own probes found a graveyard of long-dead spacecraft in orbit around one of Saturn’s moons? Surely it would mean something. What if we were to find a spacecraft from a different time — a spacecraft that contained a message or provided a glimpse into the culture that produced it?
Meditative and just the right amount of unsettling in its perspective-shifting appreciation for the enormity of time, The Last Pictures offers a poignant lens on the miraculousness of the present moment and the glorious insignificance of our individual existence.