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The Moons of Saturn
Alex Steffen, 20 May 08

A few years ago, I met Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader at the Space Science Institute, who subsequently signed me up for her email newsletter. Now, normally, I'd just unsubscribe myself and move on, but something about the Cassini-Huygens probe itself that captured my imagination -- a tiny hunk of metal, hurtling through space, illuminating our solar system and its workings. It's just cool.

So I've been following along for a few years, watching as Cassini reveals hidden aspects of Titan, Dione, the Rings of Saturn and giant lightning storms on Saturn's surface, fascinated by the wider sense of "here" that photos from another planet brings into my life.

And yet, too, Cassini has done something else for me, something that really only came into focus in my mind when looking at pictures of Dione's rocky, barren landscape: Cassini has brought home to me, in a way nothing else ever has, the stark fact that in human terms, there's no there, there.

Space, even the immediate region of our own solar system, is a vast, cold, empty, airless, barren place. There is very little we want there, and there may be no good reason for going there.

When seen in comparison to the rest of known space, our little planet looks better and better, and less and less replaceable. Thinking about the Cassini probe, out there looking for us, for the first time, at one of our nearest neighbors, I feel a sudden rushing awareness of the very air I'm breathing, the water I'm drinking, the wheat and turkey in the sandwich I'm about to eat, the perfectly moderate temperature of a Seattle spring day, even the always unnoticed yet perfect gravity pulling at my hands as I type... an awareness, in short, of how perfectly suited for us this planet is, and we to it. We could, as Gary Snyder reminds us, live on this planet without tools or clothes.

And being a geek to my core, as I think of us hurtling through space on our comfy little airy, sunny, watery rock, I hear the words of Monty Python's classic song in the background:

Just remember that your standing on a planet that's evolving, and revolving at nine hundred miles an hour... That's orbiting at ninety miles a second, so it's reckoned, the sun that is the source of all our power. The sun and you and me, and all the stars that we can see, are moving at a million miles a day. in an outer spiral-arm at forty thousand miles an hour of the galaxy we call the Milky Way.

Perhaps it's a common enough insight, this feeling of expanded presence, of ebing at home not just in the world, but on the world; but I so rarely engage in good planetary thinking, that a jolt of planetary feeling sends a happy shiver down my spine.

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My stomach turned a little on your first couple sentences:

"A few years ago, I met Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader at the Space Science Institute, who subsequently signed me up for her email newsletter. Now, normally, I'd just unsubscribe myself and move on..."

A little rude, no?

Posted by: Jessica on 20 May 08

I wasn't trying to be rude. It's simply that I get a lot of email already, and most of the time when someone signs me up -- unsolicited and unasked -- to an email list they run, I unsubscribe myself.

Otherwise, the good stuff I've chosen to get would be overwhelmed by the stuff other people have decided to send me without my asking.

In this case, she signed me up and it was a good fit. That's all.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 May 08

That's one great blue sky for man...
and one pale blue dot for mankind.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 20 May 08

I lost my stomach (kind of like going over a hump in a car) when reading;

"Just remember that your standing on a planet that's evolving, and revolving at nine hundred miles an hour..."

i love the way it gives a different perspective on our stationary live.

Posted by: shane on 21 May 08

Thank God for earth!!

I love turkey on wheat too.

Posted by: sibert on 21 May 08

Alex...beautifully said, and worth saying. I'm a writer, and about 20 years ago as I was beginning a sci-fi novel, I was almost surprised to see the words flowing from my fingertips that "...there is a single, great curiosity of space: given its vastness and the billions of stars, planets and galaxies, life is its scarcest, most precious commodity...and nearly impossible to find."

I'm fascinated by all things to do with space exploration, yet as the years pass in my life I too become more acutely aware of just how unique and perfect is this, our little blue world.

Someone sent me that bit of Monty Python song a few years back with a visual montage of lovely space photographs - a great trip, especially since it ended by bringing me right back home to Earth.

Posted by: Karen on 25 May 08

Hi Alex,
on the other hand, if we do successfully transition into Bright Green energy efficient cities, it would be nice to think humanity could save a little energy for that great exploration and "final frontier". (OK, that one nearly broke my Geek-o-nometer as well.)

Wouldn't Terraforming Mars be the ultimate in biodiversity conservation? Imagine Polar Bears roaming the Polar North of Mars, and whales exploring the new oceans of Mars....

Planets are useful things. Let's do the ultimate act of conservation, and crash Phobos into Mars to kick start our new home. (winks)

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 25 May 08

Dear Alex,
I am quite in awe.. i just saw you on TED and thought, wow I've got to tell you about Prof. Jacques Fresco and Roxanne Meadows : (you can see a 5 min version on - watch the trailer) then I came to your page and the first article is about the Cassini Mission, suffice to say that there is a very strong link between Jean Dominique (born in Perinaldo 1625) and the path I am on today.
Furthermore I found an article by Ethan Zuckerman about Zimbabwe, well I was born in Salisbury Harare and ... I am very :) to have come across worldchanging. I would love to share some ideas but am a little reluctant to post on comments. Thank you for all that you and your team are doing - I just wish it were in more languages, as I'd like to share this with so many people - I live in Rome and realize that one of the major set backs in sharing and inspiring others is the language barrier, I say this because I speak Spanish and Italian fluently thus I see the gaps- Once again thank you and all the best.

p.s. if I may I would like to share: the two most awesome books that I have read recently:

The Best That Money Can't Buy
by jacques fresco and roxanne meadows


Let My People Go Surfing
by Yvon Chouinard

Posted by: Nadya on 27 May 08

Alex, well well well said! So true.

-- Danny

By the way, I am sure you have read THE ROAD and heard that movie of the book will open Nov. 26 nationwide.

Critics will be saying things like this:

"A film that glows with the intensity of Hillcoat's huge gift for movie-making.....Why see this?....Because in its lapidary transcription of the deepest despair short of total annihilation we may ever see on screen, the movie announces the triumph of hope -- and love -- over nothingness."

And: other critics will write:


"THE ROAD is a wildly powerful and disturbing movie that exposes whatever black bedrock lies beneath grief and horror. Disaster movies have never felt more physically and spiritually real. Bravo, John Hillcoat!" -- GUESS WHO WILL WRITE THAT?


"The Road is the logical culmination of everything that Cormac McCarthy has written and it's transformation into a Hollywood movie is nothing short of stunning. You come out of the movie theater a changed person. It's that powerful!"

"It's hard to think of an apocalyptic tale as beautifully and hauntingly filmed as this one. The script possesses a massive, Biblical cadence and Hillcoat unleashes it on his actors with painterly effect. It will grip even the coldest human heart."


"Devastating. The human predicament has never been more at home, more eloquent than in the sere, postapoca ash land of THE ROAD the movie. Extraordinarly lovely and sad, a Hollywood classic-to-be."

and E:

"Hillcoast has brilliantly captured the knife edge that fugitives in a hostile world stand on......Amid this Godot-like bleakness on celluloid, the film shares something vital and enduring about the boy's spirit, his father's love and the nature of bravery itself. Hollywood doesn't get much better than this. Be prepared, be very prepared."

Posted by: Danny Bloom on 29 May 08



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