Forty years ago we launched Voyager and it’s still out there, just past the edge of our Solar System and nosing its way into interstellar space, its nuclear heart still beating. Plutonium-238 (not the Pu-239 used in bombs), in a gizmo called an RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator), powers our longest-traveled spacecraft. Atomic power was the last to be harnessed in our earth-bound vessels but will be some time before (or if) it ever replaces our carbon-based engines. Our fossil fueled jumbo jets can shrink time and distance at 600 mph, that’s ten miles a minute or one-sixth of a mile per second. A furlong is one-eighth of a mile at 220 yards, so one-sixth is a few paces short of three hundred. I can walk that in a few minutes.
Voyager has gone thirteen billion miles or so in its four-decade journey, that works out to about eleven miles per second, or sixty-six times faster than a 747. Every significant gaseous orb, ball of rock, or hunk of frozen goop out there got a flyby and the information is still coming. Voyager’s electromagnetic voice takes nineteen hours to reach us and it is expected to keep sending its data for three or four more years. And despite all the magnificent science being done we are still faced with the fact of the vast emptiness of space.
We aren’t getting anywhere near another star, let alone a habitable planet. The further and faster we go the less ground we cover. The post-war era was all about shrinking the earth as our transportation web grew in size and speed. The space race showed us our tiny earth and we’ve since surrounded our little blue marble with constellations of our own satellites. But we still dream of exploring the unexplored places. Unfortunately space is too big for our puny dreams, un-explored is perhaps better said as un-explorable.
All of our science-fiction stories rely on some miraculous faster-than-light scheme for their characters to traverse the mind-bendingly huge interstellar distances. Otherwise they would just be studies in despair as generations of humans would yearn for the stars but be unable to reach them. It would take Voyager tens of thousands of years to come close to a star other than our Sun. We’ll have to content ourselves with Martian probes or even perhaps human astronauts exploring the red planet’s surface. Anything beyond that is science fiction—fantasy, really, as no one is close to figuring out how to go faster than a rocket. And a rocket is a pea-shooter in the big scheme of things.
So our plutonium dreams have gotten us no closer. We still stand on the edge of the black emptiness. The abyss still yawns before us. It would give us nightmares if we thought about it too much. Lots of substantive, temporal things give us nightmares, we certainly don’t need any cosmic ones. Humans have medicated themselves with all sorts of creations throughout our history and today we have an enormous pharmacopeia of possibilities.
Some of those possibilities are called anti-depressants and we’ve been taking them at ever-increasing rates. One in six of us here in the States takes psychiatric drugs, that’s just the prescribed ones, and that’s over fifty million people. I’m not ant-drug or anti-pharmaceutical by any means, lots of folks need this stuff to function, and I’m not one to argue with how people get through the night. But I came across a story that gave me the creeps. It’s here, at the SUNY Buffalo campus, and it says they are finding antidepressants in the brains of fish in the Great Lakes.
Now that’s what they call an unintended consequence. As far as I’m concerned people can take all the Xanax or Prozac or Celexa or Zoloft they want or need. That ain’t my concern. But I’m pretty sure no one wants to dose the fish with it! I’m all for targeted drugging. When I knock back a whiskey or puff on a pipe I’m aiming at me and hoping I don’t hit anybody else.
Seems we’ve gotten pretty good over the years at treating our waste streams for excess phosphorus or nitrogen and we kill the pathogens and whatnot but there is stuff in there now that we can’t yet handle. We’ll have to figure it out at some point. Right now the fish are still edible (we don’t typically eat fish brains) and that’s cool but you have to wonder if the fish get screwed up by all this stuff. It works on our brains, I expect it will work on theirs, too. But no one has any notion of the impacts, at least not yet.
What it tells me is that we have to re-imagine the meaning of waste. Stuck here as we are on this ball of watery rock in the midst of uninhabitable nothingness, I say we ought to make good use of things. You grow something or dig it up and turn it into something cool you would do well to get more than one use out of it. In fact what happens to our coal or oil, or our textile fibers or construction materials, should be just as important as their first-use. Products should be designed with end-uses in mind so that we don’t have waste at all, just a resource being re-purposed. We thought we had a handle on our piss and shit but now we find we are washing our drugs into the heads of unsuspecting creatures we share the planet with.
We will still dream about the stars. And we will still wrestle with our terrestrial nightmares. Everything we see out there in space only makes us seem more remote and more isolated than before. Not that I want them to stop, mind you, I dig all the groovy science. And I’m OK with cosmic nothingness, it forces me to focus on the everyday things. And we need our meds, man. Sleep doesn’t always come easy and a human being that can’t get a decent sleep is a goddamn mess. But our nightmares belong to us, we don’t need to foist them on the fishes.