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I got your sensawunda right here.

Charlie's away, and foolishly he's left the keys with me and with the brilliant and unpredictable Hal Duncan while he's gone.

I've spent part of today researching Io (the moon of Jupiter, not the chick who got turned into a cow) and it's turned out to be a peculiarly nostalgic exercise. You see, my Swedish grandfather, the plumber (and talented sketch artist), was the sort of person who (if he had been born a hundred and fifty years earlier) would have been a dedicated naturalist. And he and I spent many many hours poring over National Geographics together when I was small. (He used to argue with them in the margins.)

I was born in 1971, so a little elementary math and history will tell you that this was taking place during the heyday of outer-solar-system probe exploration, with Pioneer and both Voyagers making their passes through the Jovian system  At that time, those images--especially the Voyager ones--were simply stunning. Breathtaking. Revolutionary.

We had never seen anything like them before.

Heck, we were still getting used to images of our own world from space.

I remembered those images as if it were yesterday. Io's dragonskin colors, the plume of the volcano--the first active exovolcano ever witnessed--rising from its surface huge and spherical as a partially eclipsed sister moon. The false-color images, painstakingly chicken-pecked across interstellar distances and long minutes of light-speed lag by a data recording and transmission system that basically consists of an  8-track tape deck and a 160-baud modem. 

Voyager 1 mosaic image of IoSome of the images were tapestries, panoramas pasted together from dozens of photographs, the lines visible in a manner that will now feel familiar to any user of Google Earth, where exposure or shadows had changed.

What a gorgeous, gorgeous thing we sent home from the cold out there. What a wonderful thing we found: a geologically living world, stretched and compressed by its primary's unimaginable gravity, seething with sulfur compounds and lakes of lava so vast that on Earth they would be inland seas.

Funny thing, today. I realized something.

Galileo image of IoWe have better images now. We have much better images. Galileo and New Horizons sent back some stunning pictures, and we live in the future now. We can make computer simulations of Jupiter and its moons that put you there, that turn Voyager 1 (now the furthest man-made object in the universe, having passed the termination shock and still in intermittent contact... and still using that 160-baud modem and a transistor radio to phone home) into your private touring car.

But every so often I find myself looking at those old photos from when I was eight years old, and aching to touch the textured dragonscale of an alien world.

Even now.



images courtesy of NASA's dedication to giving stuff away for science.

27 Comments

1:

How cool to come here and read an entry by Elizabeth Bear. I just started your novel "Dust" (love the seamless genre-blending) and was going to read Charlie's "Accelerando" immediately after.

This post is astronomy poetry.

Maybe those early photos from your childhood are so evocative because they offer imperfect fragments, made almost impressionistic by visual artifacts and low resolution, leaving the imagination to render them vast and robust.

2:

Leah @1: I think you might be right. And because we knew so little--we were just getting there--and the whole thing was such an insane adventure. Constant revelation!

I still think space is really cool.

And I hope you enjoy DUST.

3:

Good timing, I must say. Was this post inspired by the BBC Wonders of the Solar System programme _Dead or Alive_ airing yesterday, that had a fifteen-minute section on Io including those two exact images?

(if not, and you haven't seen it, run, don't walk, and watch the lot, even if it means breaking into Broadcasting House and stealing it. This is seriously good non-dumbed-down science programming, with visuals that actually give even more information than the voiceover, if you know what you're looking for.)

(just read: _All the Windwracked Stars_ (again). My sensawunda was kicked into shivers-down-the-spine overdrive by the poem from which it takes its title, just as it was by much of the content of _Scardown_ and _Worldwired_. The last writer whose works could reliably do that to me was Arthur C. Clarke...)

4:

Ms. Bear,

I commend to you a quite extraordinary book called "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes. It covers the wonderful age of scientific discovery starting in the mid 18th century on into the mid 19th century. He does this using some of the great scientists of the time. One of the most prominent in the book is the great William Herschel, the first truly modern astronomer.

It is well worth your time.

Rick York

5:

images courtesy of NASA's dedication to giving stuff away for science.

Now that right there, in one little line, is a marvel and a wonder all by itself, and a little extra piece of happiness in the world.

6:

Beautiful pictures, aren't they? I'm a good bit older than you are and I still remember looking for pictures. Have you seen the real story about the guy who just wanted to get a good overhead picture of his house and the weather balloon went up over the clouds? NASA wants to talk to him.

7:

One of the unexpected benefits of being a grad student in astronomy at a point when many of the people who worked on Voyager and Pioneer are still around is that you get to hear stories that are maybe secondhand from the people watching images come down at JPL or wherever, being the first people to see Io or Enceladus or what have you.

You also get little bits of history, like that Io's volcanoes were predicted in a dynamics paper that I once read for a class. It was several pages of math* about resonances and rotational states and so on, with maybe the last paragraph noting that the heating from the torques on Io from Jupiter would be enough to melt rock. You then find out that the authors asked the journal to rush the review process so it would beat the images that would prove or disprove it.

* Most of the calculations were left out, since it was a short paper.

8:

"Io, sulphur, away!" as the Lone Ranger used to put it.

9:

Joe Haldeman posted an excellent one on his blog just today -- video of one of Saturn's moons raising a wake in its rings. (Go read him; he explains it better than I can. :-)

10:

The part of US copyright law that makes all works of federal employees public domain is a great gift to humanity. If you look at Wikipedia a large portion of the images are from US government sources, ranging from NASA astronomy to world leaders visiting the White House and maps of historical battles from the Army War College. One would hope that other governments would make their work available to their taxpayers, but most require significant license fees.

11:

"...and we live in the future now..."

We have always lived in the future.

12:

"The false-color images, painstakingly chicken-pecked across interstellar distances and long minutes of light-speed lag by a data recording and transmission system that basically consists of an 8-track tape deck and a 160-baud modem."

'interplanetary', not 'interstellar'.

13:

What a beautiful post. Thank you :)

14:

Prof Pedant - in more crowded areas of the galaxy and in some binary star systems the distance between stars is measured in a handful of AUs. Therefore these are interstellar distances though they may not be interstellar voyages. They are also interplanetary distances. There was also no verb contained in your sentence ;0)

I saw the Moon landing when I was 6 years old. Ever since I have marvelled at the new discoveries in the solar system.

15:

Have you seen the latest release of images of Mimas from Cassini? About two points below the Saturn hexagon on the Duh What scale.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8594101.stm

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-03/sri-1vi032910.php

16:

> images courtesy of NASA's dedication to giving stuff away for science.

Hmm. NASA are funded by tax. Everything they 'give away' never belonged to them in the first place, because they didn't create the wealth which paid for those images to be obtained.

NASA are to space exploration what the NHS is to health care.

17:

Prof Pedant: you are, of course, correct. I don't suppose you're a copy editor?

18:

Blank Xavier: NASA are to space exploration what the NHS is to health care.

What, you mean under-funded, dirt-cheap, run by a corps of talented people who are dedicated to public service rather than self-enrichment, and delivering overall superb results in spite of obstacles placed in their way by ideologues who think the free market is always the best way of serving needs -- even when those needs are for not-easily-quantifiable goods such as public health or the seach for knowledge?

Here's a hint: you're an idiot, and further comments along such lines will get your ass banned from this blog.

(The Owner.)

19:

One of the things that always worried me when I was a youngster, when god was a boy, was the total appathy of my generation to space exploration. Or perhaps it was just the peer group I grew up in. I was born on the 23rd of June 1970. The moon was no longer a big deal and for my age group all we had was Skylab and the Soyuz stations. To me these were exciting things, but no-one seemed to really care. Their attitude was "oh yeah, space, big deal". Well it IS a big deal. To me at least.

Ok so maybe I wasnt there when man set foot on the moon, does that detract from the other achievements? We had permanent space stations. We sent probes to the furthest reaches of our solar system, yet few seemed to care. With every year that passed we understood so much more about our universe and to my childlike point of view that understanding grew at an amazing rate. Yet because we werent actually "there" it seemed that people cheapend it, made it less worthy.

I, for myself, hold out so much hope. In the last 20 years I have seen advances in the technology field that take my breath away, so what can I expect in the next 20 years. Great things I hope. Mars missions are a possibility. Further deep space probes I hope will be a reality. More space telescopes like Hubble. The possibilities are so bountiful but the pennypinching of government.... so worrying. After all, the voting public does so love their tax cuts. I'll get off my soap box about that, I promise.

I just think we are capable of great things. If we will only try.

20:

I've been a copy editor, and taught writing, but currently I work as a reference librarian.

21:

No comment about your errors, Prof Pedant? If you choose such a name you should be able to defend your pedantry to a mere proofreader.

Elizabeth, you may not have written as you intended but it was not wrong. I originally read it as expressing poetically the wonder of these journeys. I hesitate to mention Prof Pedant's use of the Oxford comma, only acceptable if he has been an academic at Oxford University.

22:

NASA are to space exploration what the NHS is to health care. (subject-verb agreement FAIL)

The funny thing about this is that, to the person who wrote it, this isn't a massive compliment to NASA.

23:

Pat: "I hesitate to mention Prof Pedant's use of the Oxford comma, only acceptable if he has been an academic at Oxford University."

Only? *cough*
It's also known as the serial comma (or Harvard comma if you want to maintain your snobbish airs).
Here in Australia, opinions about the serial comma are mixed; I find the extra keystroke a small price to pay to remove ambiguity.
At work, we use The Chicago Manual of Style. It recommends the serial comma, as do many other standards. As a Technical Writer, I make it my business to use the serial comma every day.

Elizabeth Bear: thankyou for reminding me of the sense of wonder and awe I felt in the late 70s and 80s as these photos were beamed home.

24:

I hesitate to mention Prof Pedant's use of the Oxford comma, only acceptable if he has been an academic at Oxford University.

As any fule kno, the Oxford comma issue is one that causes Holy Wars, although quite why I've never understood, as only mouth-breathing trogdolytes could fail to appreciate its beauty and utility...

25:

But every so often I find myself looking at those old photos from when I was eight years old, and aching to touch the textured dragonscale of an alien world.

I can completely relate to this. I was a few years into school around the time Neptune was in our little probes sight. I wasn't quite able to read the articles themselves but those pictures had me hooked. It's probably one of the biggest factor that got me into the sci-fi genre in the first place.

Sadly Charlie has probably the best description of NASA I've read in awhile. How they get anything done with one-year funding cycles dictating the operation of decade or longer missions is a testament to their skills and dedication.

26:

No, no, no. Everybody should use the serial comma.

27:

Arthur C. Clarke was so jazzed by seeing these Voyager images that he decided (after years having refused every request) to write a sequel to 2001-- just so he could play around with new knowledge about Io, Europa, and Jupiter.

It's 2010 now, so I've recently been thinking about 2010.

When Peter Hyams made it into a movie, he hired people with a Cray who took Voyager data, mixed it with physics, and portrayed the swirling storms of Jupiter at far higher resolution than Voyager's pixels. It looked great. It was one of the earliest films to show computer-generated imagery thousands of pixels across.

Book and movie are very much children of the Voyagers.

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This page contains a single entry by Elizabeth Bear published on March 29, 2010 9:36 PM.

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