Thoughts on Explorers and Pioneers—
Past and (Possibly) Future – by Hank Davis
Let’s get Columbus out of the way first. But don’t worry, he’ll be back for a curtain call.
Two things: first, Columbus did not decide, against the prevailing thinking of his day, that the Earth was round and go off in three little ships to find a new route to Asia.
(Speaking of which, is there still anyone who thinks that Columbus set off to discover America, or even a new land? In the seventh grade, I actually had a social studies teacher write that on the blackboard and had to correct her–but then she was fresh out of college, this was her first teaching job, and she realized I was right and took it well [in spite of my being a snotty little brat back then], which was a relief since she was certainly the prettiest teacher in the school at the time. Ah, puberty. B ut I digress . . .)
In fact, the Greeks, as usual, were there first. At least as early as the sixth century, B.C., the spherical shape of the world had supporters, and the notion was considered proven fact by the third century, B.C. Plato and his star pupil Aristotle considered the spherical world in the “well, of course” category. (However they were quite sure that the Earth was the center of the “universe” and the Sun, Moon, planets, and “fixed” stars all revolved around it. Can’t win ‘em all . . .)
The second thing about Columbus is that he was very, very lucky that he was ever heard from again. Like most educated people back then, he was sure the world was round, but he had somehow gotten a preposterous figure for its circumference, thinking it was far smaller than was the reality, and if there hadn’t been a continent unknown to Europeans, between him and Asia, he would never have reached land before his supplies of food and drinking water were exhausted. Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone complaining about America being named after Amerigo Vespucci when it should have been named Columbia instead. (Nevertheless, it certainly is the gem of the ocean.) Vespucci concluded, correctly, that the land he had reached was a new, unknown continent while Columbus continued to insist hat he had reached Asia. And unlike Columbus, Vespucci was working from a far superior figure for the circumference of the world that was only fifty miles off. Finally, Vespucci did reach the Americas, as they would later be named, while Columbus, on his first trip, only reached the Bahamas. Sorry, Chris baby, but you were a dope, as someone once put it in a different context.
Of course, I haven’t noticed a national holiday named Vespucci Day . . .
Okay, the long-suffering reader may say, so an explorer’s life (or pioneer’s life—I’ll be using the terms somewhat interchangeably, so sue me!) is not always a success story, and as space exploration of the Solar System continues, hopefully not always by robot probes, and reaches beyond (keeping in mind that the Solar System is a lot bigger and more complicated than we used to think only a few decades ago), maybe history, or a garbled version thereof, may be unfair to real achievers. Got it–but can we get on to space pioneers now?
Well, one more point: before you can go somewhere, you have to know that there’s somewhere to go.
So far, I have referred to “the world,” but haven’t called it a planet. That’s because the word planet comes from a Greek word (yes, we’re back to the Greeks; s’matter, you got something against gyro sandwiches?) for “wanderer,” and Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn—the planets visible to the naked eye–were called that because they moved, unlike the “fixed” stars which slowly moved in a mass across the sky with the seasons, but did not change location in the sky with respect to each other. The planets, all five of them that the Greeks couild see, did change location. Some of those wanderers would even come to a halt in the sky, then go backwards from their previous motion. This is easily explained if you know that the Earth is itself a planet/wanderer, going around the sun with the rest of the planets, in the same direction but at different speeds, and the Earth, like a faster race horse, overtakes the slower outer planets so that an observer will think they come to a stop, then go into reverse gear. With the exception of Aristarchus (and maybe a few now-forgotten disciples of his), who argued that the Earth went around the sun, the Greeks bet on all the “fixed” stars being attached to a gigantic crystal sphere around the (spherical but stationary) Earth, while each planet was on a different, separate crystal sphere, each rotating differently from the others and, yes, sometimes stopping, then reversing course.
Since the Greeks came up with this idea, they were doomed to never come up with a pulp like Planet Stories pardon me, Wanderer Stories. Win some, lose some. How can you travel to the Moon if it’s attached to a crystal sphere, and maybe on the other side of the sphere, let alone take a trip to the planets, which must be even farther away because they sometimes are seen to go behind the Moon, and so their crystal spheres must be outside of the Moon’s sphere. Besides, the opinion seems to have been divided on whether those lights in the sky are named after gods, or actually are gods. If a Pegasus knock-off were available, maybe he could be ridden to the moon (they had no idea that the space above the Earh was not filled with air—what a ridiculous notiong the contrary would be!), but remember what happened when Bellerophon (not to be confused with a wrecked starship in Forbidden Planet) tried to drop in on Mt. Olympus and say, “Hey, Zeus, baby, what’s shakin’?” Those gods can be touchy about trespassers on their home turf, and the heavens might be a worse test case than was buzzing Olympus.
Do I hear objections? (I don’t, of course, but it’s a useful rhetorical fiction.) Why all this ancient history, and, even worse, ancient mythology? The Greek gods never existed, and we can reach the planets and even the stars using time dilation at relativistic speeds, or generation ships, if nothing better is available.
Maybe . . . but, on the other hand, are you certain there are no gods, or at least godlike beings out there? If Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quip that “any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic” is true, then won’t any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrials be indistinguishable from gods? Suppose they’re touchy about the savages (or worse, the monkeys, or even mice) dropping in on them uninvited.
As for that technology . . . if the speed of light is indeed an absolute limit, with no way to dodge or detour around it, traveling close to that speed to take advantage of time dilation might still be unworkable. Back in the sixties, a card-carrying scientist wrote an essay in a book on interstellar communication, which he thought demonstrated that the propulsion required to travel close to lightspeed required technology that was not only beyond anything we might build, ever, it was impossible by the mathematics of the thing. The essay was quoted at length in a review in Scientific American of the book it appeared in. The magazine’s reviewer cited the article with an unholy glee, writing (I quote from memory) that “this will send the idea of the starship back to the cereal box, where it belongs.” (And this was back when Scientific Amerikan pardon me, American, was worth reading, a situation that ended several years ago!) Other writers with comparable credentials have attacked the premises and reasoning of that article, but even so, we can’t blithely assume that time dilation will give us the stars.
And there have been arguments why a generation ship of less than planetoid size would soon become unlivable, aside from the gene pool of the crew being too small to prevent genetic deterioration; and if the ship were planetoid size, the reaction mass to propel it would be beyond anything we can imagine.
In other words, we don’t have a Pegasus to fly us up to the crystal spheres, and suppose the planet or star or the Moon is on the other side of that crystal sphere. And what if it’s some sort of magic fire (cue Wagner; I don’t care if it’s anachronistic) and there’s nothing to land on. And suppose the aliens, I mean the gods don’t want you there?
Columbus (I told you he’d be back) didn’t know there was a continent in his way to Asia, and also operated with a conception of the size of the Earth that was way off. How do you know we aren’t way off now?
We’ve known about the speed of light and relativistic effects for barely more than a century. Do we know the whole story? What do you mean the Earth goes around the Sun? Next, you’ll be saying the Earth is flat and we’re way beyond that old nonsense now!
Suppose I concede that we can never reach the stars, except maybe by a robot probe that will still be working somehow centuries after it was sent out at a patheticly sublight velocity. Supposed I concede that, as some spoilsports have argued, all stories about starflight are fantasy masquerading as science fiction?
Even if it’s true. Fantasy is fun (“Hey, Conan, get your broadsword and run outside and chase off that dragon before he takes a bite out of the starship’s hyperdrive unit.”) In fact, I don’t concede anything of the kind, but so what? Stories of apace exploration and pioneering are jolly good fun, and even if we’re limited to starships of the mind, I say, keep ‘em coming, and with the fascinatingly strange aliens be handy.
While we’re waiting and hoping for real starships, there’ve been a plenitude of terrific stories written abut flights to worlds beyond the Solar System. And even if they never come true in any way, shape or alien form, remaining as nonexistent as Oz or Middle Earth, they’re still good stories. The space exploration theme is at the very heart of sf, from Jules Verne and Cyrano de Bergerac to whatever Star Trek spinoff is on the telly this week, with stopovers at Doc Smith, van Vogt, Heinlein, Niven and many more in between.
And while we’re happily riding in our paper starships, maybe some new breakthrough in physics, or mathematics. or even sewing machines (read Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe and you’ll get it) will mean that we can go to the stars after all. We can take along a stack of recent issues of Scientific American for ballast. Or maybe give them to aliens we meet, though that might spark the first interstellar war.
But consider Magellan, who was killed by unfriendly natives while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, and though the voyage was finished (successfully) by his second in command, he’s still famous (can you name his second in command?), and has the Straits of Magellan and the Magellanic Clouds named after him. Not bad for a dead guy who didn’t finish the job.
And this time, there’s a job Out There that will likely never be ginished.
Still here, Mr. Columbus? Well, pull up a chair, Chris, and have a cup of Columbian coffee. Show us that party trick with an egg we’ve been hearing about.