. .. to Tipperary”. From Sydney, 18,000 kms in fact. If Voyager 1, at present zooming through interstellar space 19 billion kms away from us, were to do the trip from Down Under to the Green Isle, it would take about twenty minutes instead of the twenty hours many Australian tourists take to get to the home of their ancestors. Voyager 1, traveling non-stop since September 5, 1977, at 60,000 kms/hr (17 kms/sec), is on its way to a little red star in the Giraffe constellation. Even at that speed it will take it 40,000 years to get there !
We have no real idea of what those figures mean. 40,000 years is a tiny length of time in astronomical terms, where we throw around figures like 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, and cannot claim to have any idea how long that is. We are more or less comfortable counting in hundreds, perhaps thousands, but not in millions let alone billions of kilometers or years. 40,000 years is twenty times the 2000 that mark the length of Christian history to date. We’re already lost before we start measuring distances in light-years.
To come down for a moment , not to earth but to our solar system, our tiny portion of the Galaxy to which, along with hundreds of billions of other stars, ours belongs, already the exploits of Voyager 1, and of its sister Voyager 2 and her trips past Uranus and Neptune, are impressive. It took Voyager 1 two and a half years to fly by Jupiter, the massive planet three hundred times bigger than ours, and two months taking 19,000 photos of the monster and its five principal moons. Even when it got to Saturn twenty months later, it was still in our backyard. Now it’s literally beyond us, like all the mind-blowing figures I have just recalled.
We need go no further to reflect on the immensity if not the infinity of the Universe (or Multiverse ?) There is something puerile, parochial, even pathetic about people pondering the “purpose” of all this. We are tiny ants, bacteria, no, infinitesimal particles, arrogant enough to think that we alone, in this vast, endless, quasi-emptiness which is space, can … think. And some of us have used that capacity to imagine the fantasy of an Intelligent Designer, a Divine Architect, of the cosmos !
Some people look up at the stars at night and praise their Creator. I look at them and realize how lucky I am to have been given the opportunity for a few brief years to appreciate their wondrous beauty and to have understood that they are, like me, destined to disintegrate : a few more years for me and perhaps a few billion more for them before they explode in a supernova. The stars and the planets and the galaxies will keep doing their thing until they disappear. I will keep doing mine for the time I have left, happy to have had the chance to be part of it all, and with no illusions about purpose and Providence, creeds and Creators, Divine Designers and dastardly devils, Heaven and Hell and all the rubbish religion has conned people into believing.
It’s a long way to Tipperary, and a lot further to the Giraffe constellation. I was lucky enough to make it to my family seat in Ireland, and lucky enough to be alive to witness mankind’s first excursion beyond the solar system. Bon voyage, Voyagers !