Monday, March 26, 2012

Back To The Sixties

Interesting to see a return to some sixties-era scientific exploration with one going low and one going incredibly, incredibly high.

James Cameron took Deepsea Challenger to the literal (littoral?) bottom of the ocean; the Mariana Trench.  

This was, as we have all heard, the first time since 1960 Piccard & Walsh in the Bathyscape Trieste dove there.  Sure there were some differences; Cameron filmed it all in HD whereas Piccard and Walsh barely saw their own wake and a couple of flounders, but this was the first human presence that deep in forty years.

At the other end of the planet, quite literally, Felix Baumgartner is trying to break Joseph Kittinger's parachute jump from the edge of space, some 20 miles up.  Kittinger's original jump was also in 1960.  

Baumgartner has already jumped from 21 kms, or a half-marathon straight up, in what was the third highest parachute jump ever and, in keeping with the tone of this blogpost, the first in 40 years.  Of course, like Cameron, he's going to film the whole thing in HD.

Why now? 

Shortly after there achievements the space-race went into top gear.  As Tom Wolfe argues in The Right Stuff, as soon as people, well men, started to be launched into space, all the old height and speed records became superfluous.  Even the guys flying the X15 into actual space were relegated to having just flown really high and really fast.  It's not like they sat on top of a rocket or anything.

Maybe we, in the broadest sense of humanity and the scientific community, have gone as far with space as can be gone for now.  Maybe one can even detect a sense in these recent achievements a backlash to the virtual world we all live in to a greater or lesser extent.  In our daily lives we can, and we do, interact with people without ever meeting them face-to-face.  The great scientific discoveries of the age appear to be computer-enhanced Hubble images or inference: if we see a wobble in a star's rotation there must be a planet there.  The one thing that unites both Cameron and Baumgartner, going to opposite ends of the planet, is a been-there-done-that attitude.  They went there, in person, touched the void, and brought something back.  Pure human experience, no extrapolation required.  Veni, vidi, vici indeed.

What next can be resurrected from the golden age of sixties exploration?  A moon-base perhaps?  Please let it be a moon-base!


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