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Space Canon
Claire L Evans Dot Com
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    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.

    In 1977, NASA sent a pair of unmanned probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space. Among the infrared spectrometers and radio receivers included on each probe were identical copies of the same non-scientific object: the Voyager Golden Record.

    Sheathed in a protective aluminum jacket, the Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images chosen to portray the diversity of life on Earth: bird calls, whale songs, the sounds of surf, wind, and thunder, music from human cultures, and some 55 greetings in a range of languages, alive and dead. Like lonely time capsules, the records, aboard their still-functioning hosts, have long since left our solar system. The official Voyager 2 Twitter reports that the probe is currently at 13 hrs 38 mins 08 secs of light-travel time from Earth, which makes it the farthest man-made object from Earth.

    According to the unofficial mythology, the Voyager Golden Record was compiled by two people in love: the astronomer Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan, the creative director of the project, who he would later marry. Druyan confided on WNYC's Radio Lab program in 2007 that she recorded the sounds of her own body-the electrical impulses of her brain and nervous system, her heartbeats-for the album, which were the sounds of a woman swept away: by a man, by ideas, by the power of sending their love out into eternity, her human pulse synched to the hollow ebbing of a pulsar. Love, golden, close to eternal, flying at impossible speeds through the heavens.

    The Golden Record's panoply of information, including those 55 greetings, was intended for an unknowable audience of spacefaring extraterrestrials. They are chatty, almost unserious: preposterously, one, in Amoy, even asks if the aliens are hungry. These recordings ostensibly represent a united voice of mankind addressing the cosmos. Of course, however, each greeting is a world of its own, embodying its own set of cultural and historical attitudes about life in space, time, infinity, and consciousness. The phrasing shifts from one recording to the next, revealing dramatic shifts in perspective. While the Arabic speaker calls extraterrestrials "friends in the stars," the Zulu and Sotho recordings address "great ones." What space is, what it represents, is not a consistent variable.

    And neither, of course, are we.

    As a species, the messages we've sent into space are piecemeal. For every concerted effort towards reasoned transmission, millions upon millions of radio-hours of information have leaked out into space from our planet haphazardly, beginning with that famous Nazi Olympic broadcast in 1936. Which, as it turns out, may be a better way for an extraterrestrial species to know us.

    We're warring, inconsistent. We love, and embarrass ourselves. We create technologies seemingly at random, often beyond our ability to understand, let alone legislate. We live in bodies eminently susceptible to the slightest intrusion. Only a few of us are even fleetingly concerned with the impression we might make on our alien brethren. And yet, flawed, we are, our whole tumultuous history an opaque question mark in the darkness.

    Reaching out by virtue of our idle transmissions, waiting.

    The Record is a present we gave to ourselves, or rather that Sagan and Druyan gave to the rest of us, an object that delivers the entire emotive impact of the human race in a polished package. According to the Golden Record, we're groovy. We don't murder each other over inconsequential abstractions, or defile our planet for material gain. We're friendly, sending warm "hellos" out into the Universe, playing Bach, playing Chuck Berry to our new friends. It's freshman year of college, a cocktail party exaggeration: an invention designed to impress. But impress who?

    It's likely an extraterrestrial intelligence would take the Voyager Golden Record for a piece of space garbage; the obsolescence of records aside, we can hardly assume its alien discoverers would have ears, let alone understand sound waves as information, or carved etchings as meaning. I'm not the first to posit that the Voyager Golden Record, with all its naive bombast, was more an exercise in summing ourselves up to ourselves than it was a pragmatic solution for first contact. Carl Sagan himself called it a "symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life." In compiling the Record, its creators ran a comb over the tangle of ideas, languages, and cultures that make up the human race and parsed it into something cohesive, simple-even neat.

    Is it beautiful? Beyond expression. Does it represent the human race and its position in the cosmos? No, of course not. No single such compendium could. Our reality is utterly subjective, our languages merely sandcastles held together by history and mutual consent. When NASA welded plaques depicting a man and a woman onto the Pioneer probes in 1972, conservatives in the United States objected to the nudity in the now-iconic image. We deny and contest our own bodies, the intrinsic animal nature of our personhood. Can we know what we are?

    Personally, I'm an animal, but also a space zealot; I believe that a proper understanding of our place in regards to the universe is an elusive, but ultimately transcendent, tool. A clearer sense of our position (simultaneously precious and irrelevant) may be the most powerful aftereffect of the space programs of the late 20th century. Simply the image of the planet in perspective, a marble in the void-or, to quote Sagan again, a "mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam"-has altered global culture in ways we've yet to accurately measure.

    The writer Frank White, whose essays on the subject of cosmic scale should be canonical, refers to a shift in perspective called the "Overview Effect." White's estimation, supported by accounts from those in the unique position of having seen the Earth from space, is that such an overview has a penetrating, complex effect. It triggers a singular insight: sudden awareness of life's interconnectedness and the frailty of our planet.

    For those of us on the ground, gazing up into space can be a mutable experience. To some, it's a horror of the Lovecraftian variety: a deep abyss, out of which some undefinable and eldritch ancientness threateningly emanates. To others, the blackness of space represents a kind of anattā, direct evidence of the non-self. While the former escape to light-polluted urban centers and live their lives in denial of the vast beyond, the latter meditate under the stars. And yet all of us, no matter our impulses, are at least dimly aware of the significance of our planetary position: we hang suspended in an incomprehensible void.

    In my interview with Frank White, he pointed out:

    "I find it somewhat puzzling that when we talk about problems on Earth, such as the so-called 'population problem,' we never include the dimension of our larger environment, i.e., the solar system and beyond. And when we talk about the 'energy problem,' only a few people are willing to even consider the promise of satellites that could beam solar energy to the Earth. We discuss almost every major human problem as if we were confined to one planet, rather than being on 'Spaceship Earth,' which is a part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe."

    I made the video, Greetings from the People of Earth, to be screened at a panel discussion about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the World Science Festival in New York. Aside from serving to remind the audience that American space bureaucracy had once produced an act of remarkably poetic thinking, it was intended to show that the frail human voices strapped to a spaceship aboard the Voyager Golden Record had originated on a spaceship, too: the Earth.

    Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, who spoke on the World Science Festival panel, often compares the scope of her organization's research to date as being merely one tablespoon of water from the sea. No one would pronounce the ocean devoid of life after inspecting such a small portion; if anything, the ratio inspires hope. My collection of voices from the Voyager Golden Record, juxtaposed with the night skies above their respective nations, is similar: a spoonful of life in the infinite vastness of space. There's still so much left to explore, and one day-perhaps tomorrow, perhaps hundreds of years from now-we might discover a flicker of life, as silvery and pure as a darting fish, in a nearby puddle of the cosmos.
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    Mushrooms and their mycelium are quiet allies that are essential for our healthy existence. They are enigmatic, have a sense of humor, and socially as well as spiritually, bond together all that admire them. They have much to teach us.
    -Paul Stamets

    If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self a part of nature's larger whole.
    -Terrence McKenna

    A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table, having coffee, when I suddenly noticed a new development in my bonsai plant. At the foot of the pygmy pine was sprouting, of all things, a mushroom. The physical recoil this realization triggered in me is beyond description. I nearly spilled my drink in my impulse to first spring away — then draw towards — this fungus. How had this happened? My god, how do mushrooms work?

    As it turns out, the soil of my potted bonsai was rich with mycelium. Mycelium is the fungal "root," if you will, the vegetative body of the organism, which can net, spread, propagate, and convey nutrients over great distances, eventually sprouting fruiting bodies — mushrooms. This meant that no matter how many little brown mushrooms I plucked out of my houseplant, more popped into place. Thus began my journey into mycophilia.

    Being a fickle bedroom hobbyist, I sacrificed the bonsai, relinquishing 1,000 years of Japanese history to my fungal visitor. After all, what is more ancient, more venerable, than a mushroom? Fungi were the first organisms to come to land, and survived the cataclysmic asteroid impacts of geological history — visitors to our planet 420 million years ago would have encountered a landscape dominated by 30-foot-tall prototaxites, fungal pillars dwarfing the surrounding landscape. And, lest you think this kind of cyclopean 'shroom has gone the way of the dinosaurs, the largest known organism on our planet today is a 2,400-year old, 2,200 acre honey mushroom mycelium in Eastern Oregon.

    Furthermore, we're more closely related to these behemoths than you might imagine: even though the animal kingdom branched off from its fungal counterpart some 600 million years ago, we still share over half our DNA with fungi. Historically, culturally, and biologically, we are incredibly close to mushrooms. That closeness can be exploited to our benefit: many powerful antibiotics against bacteria come from fungi, while anti-fungal antibiotics tend to harm us, precisely because of our intimately interlinked relationship with mushrooms. Some scientists posit reorganizing traditional biological classification to include a animalia-fungi superkingdom called "Opisthokontum."

    Far-out scholar Terrence McKenna, in his book Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, took this connection further, arguing that the so-called missing link between our ancestors and language-using, symbol-toting Homo Sapiens (or Homo Spiritualis, as he puts it) is not an evolutionary phase but an interaction with entheogens — namely, "magic" mushrooms. McKenna argued that early man, foraging for food in the African grasslands, would have inevitably consumed varieties of fungal hallucinogen, triggering the semiotically complex transcendence (and the various perceptual advantages) of the psychedelic experience. It's this psychosymbiotic mingling with the "vegetable mind" of the natural world that triggered those things which separate us from the animals: use of symbols, language, ritual, and abstract representation. Over centuries, this experience would have been ritualized, this dip into the howling Tao codified; what remains today are merely symbols, hidden in plain sight in many of the religious traditions of the world. This theory, now dubbed the "Stoned Ape Theory of Human Evolution," is fascinating — and I whole-heartedly recommend McKenna's book, which is essentially a natural history of the human relationship to drugs.

    American mycologist Paul Stamets, in his 2008 TED Talk, Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, argues that the structure of mycelium is a neuromicrological network with universal properties. In the image below, I've placed an electron micrograph of fungal mycelium next to an image of dark matter. Beneath that, a visualization of the network structure of the Internet by Hal Burch and Bill Cheswick, courtesy of Lumeta Corporation.

    Can you tell the difference?

    Stamets, who calls mycelium "Earth's Natural Internet," puts it this way:

    I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven biologically successful model. The earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, and we, now, being the top organism on this planet, [are] trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.

    Going way out, dark matter conforms to the same mycelial archetype. I believe matter begets life, life becomes single cells, single cells become strings, strings become chains, chains network. And this is the paradigm that we see throughout the universe.

    Stamets, being a mycologist, understands the fundamental structure of information, of the physical universe itself, as adhering to a "mycelial archetype." To him, everything is mushroom — while McKenna, his visionary counterpart, reads the history of human culture through a mycophilic lens. Of course, both men experimented extensively with the mental states associated with ritualized consumption of a certain variety of mushroom, but this shouldn't lessen the impact of their profound, macrocosmic reading of the humble fungus (although it's interesting to think of mushrooms as doing their own psychedelic PR).

    Mycelium, an intertwined network of cells permeating virtually all land masses of Earth, is not something to take lightly. It literally engulfs the soil beneath us in a sentient web, rising up beneath our footsteps, hungry for nutrients. There is something beautiful and horrifying, ancient and keenly technological about these organisms, a complexity it may take a psychedelically-informed, non-institutional mind to fully appreciate.

    In any case, it beats a tiny tree.
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