The Avid Reader: A trip into the universe

  • 'We Are Stardust: the universe in verse' by Bill Chatfield. Courtesy photo

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/26/2021 11:27:59 AM

This is a big month for our solar system. The robot explorer Perseverance made a 300-million-mile journey through space and landed on Mars, an Antares rocket launched the Cygnus cargo ship to the space station for NASA, and a local man published his poetic thoughts on the universe.

Our thoughts naturally turn toward space and what it took to make robotic probes, and massive rocket launches seem almost commonplace.

So, whether you grew up in the Sputnik era or think of that time as ancient history – you probably need a refresher. The best source for this is America’s funniest historian Mary Roach. Her book “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” is an irresistible cruise across all the facets of how to become an astronaut – so you can jaunt into space, and what to do when you get there.

Starting with how Japan selects an astronaut (hint: origami is seriously involved), moving on through the psychology of isolation (several someones caught up on sleep), continuing though motion sickness (throwing up really is in that direction when in weightless confinement), and interspacing it all with amusing anecdotes, Roach kept me reading from chapter to chapter without pause.

Roach begins with early space travel and all of the trials experienced by those macho astronauts and then turns to how all of this was just a prelude to the enormous challenges of eventual interplanetary travel.

Typically, research involving long-time travel in space usually tends to be very dry and technical. Yet, with her usual wit, Roach provides a series of highly entertaining accounts including how scientists figured out methods for feeding these sailors to the stars. For example, one suggestion was to “add shredded paper as a ‘thickener’ to a main course of vitamin and mineral-enriched sugar water.” However, Roach was unable to ascertain whether it was “as an aid to palatability, regularity, or document security.” I guess some things will forever remain a mystery, even for Roach.

All of these chapters culminated in discussing that final goal in the race to outer space – specifically to Mars. While many of us thought that the moon was the big deal, the reality was much further away, mostly because many deep thinkers have realized that Earth may not always be as habitable as it is right now. Yes, projections are that at some point in the distant future our sun will die, humanity will have used up Earth’s resources, and some cataclysmic event is highly likely.

How do we know this? Michio Kaku has the answer in “The Future of Humanity: Our Destiny in the Universe.” Kaku is a theoretical physicist, very deep thinker, and author of several best sellers. He begins by reminding us that “one day about seventy-five thousand years ago, humanity almost died.” This was due to that massive eruption of Toba in Indonesia that created a volcanic winter. It is theorized that all but around 2,000 humans world-wide died, along with most of the vegetation and wildlife. Apparently this was the first cataclysmic event, and mathematical and scientific speculation suggests more are on the way.

Things got better after that first big blow up, but as we know, other events have, and will, happen. For Kaku, Mars is only the next goal in what he believes is just the first in a series of stages, scaffolding to the ultimate prize – interstellar colonization.

Given what we know of the current scientific trends, this is not really so far-fetched. Medical science is working to reverse aging (we need amazing longevity to survive the flights to the nearest star system that has earth-like planets orbiting younger suns). Botanists are developing life-sustaining plants that will grow under a variety of hostile conditions (check out UNH’s kiwis), and engineers are designing starships rugged enough to travel those astonishing distances.

Right now, Mars is the planet of choice for many of the experiments in space travel, and Kaku brilliantly discusses all of these efforts. Once Mars has again become the lush and habitable planet many think it once was, all of the data can be gathered and used for the next step of the journey.

Speaking of journeys, Kaku also speculates that perhaps some day humans can leave their bodies and just laser port to the farther galaxies. This is how theoretical physicists think – and many times their thinking becomes reality. What a fascinating way to think of how we could achieve immortality.

Once read, these books make it impossible to get these thoughts out of my head. Like the endless breakers on the sand, I keep thinking of the “forever” of space, the possibility of some part of me being “forever” and traveling through the stars, and someday a civilization that can harness extragalactic energy to keep life going despite the ultimate apocalypse.

And one man, in a small corner of a medium-sized state, looks up at the stars every night and gives poetic voice to those thoughts that swirl through our heads. The Peterborough Poetry Project has just published Bill Chatfield’s newest poems “We Are Stardust: The Universe in Verse.” Sometimes when we look to the heavens after reading something profound, or remembering a photograph from a distant telescope, we lack the words to describe what we feel. That is what poetry is for and that is what poets do.

Chatfield likes to push the envelope surrounding our traditional thinking by giving voice to our ponderings. For example, the Big Bang is a scientific belief that leads us to believe this whole thing we call the infinite universe all started in a moment, with a bang. As finite beings, we can accept that because we understand a beginning and an end. Chatfield, on the other hand, in his poem “No Big Bang” suggests something else.

Some scientists doubt

that a Big Bang

created all of this

that we see

from a bland “without.”

The idea

of no big bang

sounds about right to me.

Beginnings and

endings play

havoc with the idea of eternity.

After reading about packing for a Martian voyage and laughing with Roach about the very human efforts to launch these expeditions, then venturing beyond the outer rim of our galaxy with Kaku, we can begin to appreciate how one poet can give voice to these thoughts. Now, we need to formulate our responses to this future.

The Peterborough Poetry Project has offered a challenge and a promise. All readers are asked to become part of the Cosmic Poetry series by submitting their own poems about the cosmos. So, read, think, speculate, imagine, and, first – dance your mind through the stars, then – second, put pen to paper and add your new fresh voice to the Cosmos.

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