I met a relic in a Huston bar
Who said: “Two cold and quiet craft of steel
fall outward from the Sun, out to the stars,
exhausted they still now and then reveal
an unexpected consequence of laws
we’d like to think we know so very well:
flaws in our grasp of this vast universe
whose secrets we have yearned to learn and tell.
And fastened to their frames two plaques converse
with beings who might one day happen on
these artifacts, and know the work of Man,
whose lone brief candle may by then be gone.
But still the work of men and women stands
in distant skies, beyond these desert sands.”
The two inspirations here are Shelley’s Ozymandias and the Pioneer 10 and 11 space craft, which as well as causing us some consternation in recent years due to an enormous deviation from their expected course (an excess acceleration toward the Sun of (8.74±1.33)E−10 m/s**2) also carry a message to anyone who might find it in future.
Shelley lived before the discovery of “Deep Time”, which is one of the defining realities of the modern age, and so profoundly disturbing that it causes many weaker-souled individuals to retreat into the fantasy of Young Earth Creationism.
Over the course the 19th century the foundations of our knowledge of the Earth went from being based on a book written by people–the Bible–to being based on the world, and one of my recurring points is that while anyone remotely sane must at least acknowledge the possibility that the Bible is wrong, there is no possible sense in which anyone who makes any claim of belief in God whatsoever can reasonably claim that God got the world wrong. So by reading God’s word in the world we are far more likely to get it right than not, whereas with the Bible, the Koran, the Torah or any other Bronze Age document, who knows?
And what the world is telling us is: the universe is insanely old and incomprehensibly vast. It is pervaded by dimensions and laws we can only be aware of by the most subtle statistical inference. And yet we can and do make those inferences, groping our way carefully and systematically through the darkness, building machines and inventing ideas that will carry us further, deeper, into the realm of knowledge (which is uncertain) and out of the realm of faith (which is certain).
Shelley didn’t know anything about that because people hadn’t discovered it yet. He lived in a world that was profoundly alien to ours, where a few thousand years seemed like a long time. His vast and empty desert was probably a Jurassic swamp, or a mountain range worn to dust. It is not only the works of humanity that pass.
But… out on the far reaches of the Solar System there are a handful of human-made machines falling outward, never to return. Who knows what will happen to them. They lack the energy to escape our galaxy, but then again, when our galaxy collides with the next one over in a few hundred million years there will suddenly be lots of energy to spare. Perhaps one of these little machines will be flung out into the intergalactic night, to drift, well, forever.
Should that happen, it is reasonably probable that a machine made by human hands and human minds will continue to exist while the increasingly distant stars go dark one by one around it until it moves on alone, the last evidence that once the universe was bright and warm and contained a species that was capable of looking up, and asking why.