Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

Yesterday, I pretended, for rhetorical purposes, that the New Horizons probe had a passenger on its voyage to Pluto and beyond. I was making a point about a delusional lack of any sense of proportion or empathy centred around a petty, vindictive power struggle that's causing pointless misery on our planet to no purpose that I can see, other than to save face for people who have the power to change course away from an ever-deepening human-engineered catastrophe, but seemingly lack the will or wit to do so.

Looking up from the gutter and back at the stars, New Horizons really does have a passenger - although he's no longer among the living. The probe carries an aluminium capsule, no longer than a typical USB memory stick, bearing the following inscription:
Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s ‘third zone.’ Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997).
Not only ('only??') a fantastic scientific and technical achievement, then, but the most awesome resting place in all of human history. Ever.

Humans have devised some impressive - and sometimes appalling - ways to honour their dead, at least those deemed by their society to merit special recognition. Ancient rulers buried among piles of glittering possessions and the bodies of servants and spouses sacrificed to signal the deceased's power and authority, sky burial on the towers of silence, being set adrift on a burning longboat, the tombs of generals, thronged with winged victories, angels intended to watch over a tomb stolen by a monarch, monuments to tyrants, built by slaves, the inscription on Sir Christopher Wren's tomb, which asks the reader who seeks his memorial to 'look around you' at the awe-inspiring cathedral he designed, the Taj Mahal, the pyramids...

But nobody, until now, could say of a real, once-living human being, 'we placed him among the stars.' Quite literally.

It's what the ancients did with mythic heroes, legendary queens and - bizarrely - with the hair of a real queen. It's only according to an extravagantly poetic legend that the golden locks of Queen Berenice II, (daughter of Magas of Cyrene and Queen Apama II, wife of King Ptolemy III Euergetes, third ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt), were placed among the stars by the goddess Aphrodite. But the remains of Clyde Tombaugh, from Streator, Illinois, are really on their way to the stars, where they'll still be drifting more than five billion or so years hence, when nothing's left of the pyramids but dust, being blown around the charred remains of Earth, if any winds still blow there.

You'd have to be already dead inside for that thought not to send a little shiver down your spine.

We are stardust. Now, for the first time in human history a human is returning , not only to dust, but also to the stars.