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Casey DreierNovember 25, 2013

Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 6: Travellers' Tales

Voyager is the ultimate expression of our desire to explore


Cosmos with Cosmos is a weekly series that encourages people to get together and watch Cosmos with a cosmo(politan) or drink of your choice. We're posting weekly episode recaps and discussion through February of 2014. This series is made possible by members of the Planetary Society. If you like what you're reading, please consider joining the Society or donating $10 to help support projects like this in the future. To learn more about this series and find out how to watch Cosmos, see our introduction.


« Episode 5:
Blues for a Red Planet


Episode 7: The Backbone
of Night »


Watch Cosmos Episode 6: Travellers' Tales on Hulu or iTunes.

Neanderthals didn't get around much. Beyond known settlements in Europe and eastern Russia, no signs of them have been discovered anywhere else. They seem to have lacked a certain zest for exploration and expansion.

Homo sapiens, on the other hand, spread to every niche and corner on the planet. We've gone beyond that, even, exploring the Moon and creating semi-permanent habitats in Earth orbit. Where technology or cost prevents us from going deeper into space, we don't give up - we send robotic emissaries in our place. There seems to be a powerful desire in our species to push outward and explore. This strange compulsion is what has "characterized and distinguished the human species" as Sagan says early in this episode. It's what led us to create missions like the Voyagers, which venture out in the immensity, never to return.

The Solar System Family Portrait

NASA / JPL

The Solar System Family Portrait
Voyager 1's last view, looking back on every planet in the solar system.

The neanderthals had no Voyager, no sailing ships, no great feats of exploration. They died out, along with every other humanish species, victims of climate change and competition with homo sapiens. Our species went on to conquer the planet. We created the the Voyagers and the other spacecraft that explore our solar system. Why us?

Episodes 6 of Cosmos, Travellers' Tales, doesn't try to answer this question. It chooses to celebrate the that the "the passion to explore is at the heart of being human." We all need reminders of this sometimes, especially these days, when our newfound security, wealth, and comfort work to dissuade us from the expense and risk of exploration - slowly seducing us to the same fate as poor homo neanderthalensis.

Travellers' Tales is a thematic sequel to episode 5's Blues for a Red Planet, though I think it works better as an hour-long piece of entertainment. Both Voyager and Viking could trace deep roots in our culture and common history. Both exemplified the best of us, representing a purity of vision. Unlike historical sailing missions of exploration, both Viking and Voyager were untainted by greed, war, disease, and conquest. Their missions were peaceful, their goals scientific. Voyager ultimately became the more famous of the two, I would argue. It revealed far more new, tantalizing worlds, stranger vistas, and continues to operate to this day. It also traces a greater lineage than Viking, which makes for a more profound story.

The show begins with a callback to our very first episode. We start outside and look in, traveling from the outer solar system towards the Sun, finding Earth (and ourselves) at the very end of the journey. But instead of jumping into history, Sagan takes us to the present (as it was in 1979, that is) with a look inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, cigarette smoke and all, when scientists were receiving data as Voyager 2 flew by Jupiter in 1979.

The parallels are drawn heavy between the Voyagers and the sailing vessels of second great age of exploration, when Europe came to dominate much of the world. Both types of ships travelled great distances over many years, both explored new lands, and both returned tales of adventure and discovery. Unlike the sailors, though, the travellers' tales returned by Voyager are always true. There are no fanciful, mis-remembered mountains lurking in the haze of Titan or shimmering creatures seen after a rum-drenched night of staring into the clouds of Jupiter. Voyager only relayed the data with a cold sobriety, leaving us to our to our wits to spin the fanciful interpretations of worlds of ice and fire and shattered crust.

After a highlighting the Dutch enlightenment and their remarkably open, adventurous society, we get a brief glimpse at the great scientist Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Saturn's rings. We see his focused efforts to peer through the newly developed telescopes of the time, struggling to understand the new worlds he saw. We are then brought back to JPL, where we see another group of scientists struggling to understand the new worlds they saw, this time through Voyager's eyes. Our tools may have improved, but our desires to understand are the same.

These two spacecraft would continue to function far beyond when Sagan (or anyone) would have predicted. Just last year, I was part of The Planetary Society's 35th anniversary event celebrating the Voyager mission with its lead scientist, Ed Stone. Not only did Voyager 2 continue on towards Uranus and Neptune, but they both have continued on towards interstellar space. Both are still radioing back information, and Voyager 1 has now passed into interstellar space. While only a few instruments still function, they still carry with them the golden record, their welcome message, our species' way of saying, "we were here."

Svante Pääbo is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, where he specializes in sequencing the DNA of ancient creatures. He often asks himself the question of why humans were driven to explore and neanderthals were not.

There is a compelling argument that our drive to explore - Pääbo calls it our "madness" - is related a series of genetic mutations that are unique to humans. Variants of the gene DRD4, for example, have been linked to restlessness and risk taking, and Pääbo believes it represents the mutations that made us the type of species that looks across an endless ocean and thinks "let's see what's out there."

I don't think anyone seriously believes that our drive to explore is a work of a single gene, but I do see how a set of mutations of various genes could increase this tendency and thereby increase their likelihood for reproduction. By reaching out into new places, we exploit untapped biological niches for ourselves. We face animals that aren't evolved to hunt us. The flexible software of our brains could more quickly adapt to new surroundings, and in doing so the new surroundings would themselves select for our own adaptations that make us flexible. The drive for exploration and expansion in this sense can be considered a phenotype - the physical expression of a gene or set of genes in an organism.

But phenotypes don't just represent physical characteristics. Richard Dawkins expanded on the concept with his theory of the extended phenotype, which is any characteristic or expression in the world that helps in the survival of those genes, regardless of whether they are in the same body of the genes themselves.

Voyager 2 in the solar wind

NASA / GSFC Conceptual Image Lab

Voyager 2 in the solar wind
This artist's concept shows the venerable Voyager 2 spacecraft journeying out of the solar system at 15 kilometers per second (34,000 miles per hour) with the solar wind streaming past it four times faster.

Thought of in this way, the Voyagers are the ultimate extended phenotype of our species. A few mutated genes in the bodies of our ancient ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago have found their expression in the hardened metal and golden plates of these spacecraft. Our expansionist, exploratory desires may be our most important evolutionary trait we have, maybe driving us off this planet and onto another, saving us from the vulnerable position our species finds itself in.

The neanderthals lacked this desire and they suffered dearly. Their genes didn't carry them out beyond much of anything. Our genes give us a predilection to explore, but we must consciously choose to do so. We've seen both in culture and in biology that uninquisitive, cautious groups die while the bold thrive. In which society would you rather live, one that looks out or one that looks in? As NASA budgets decrease and we find ourselves explaining away exploration as too costly, Sagan reminds us here that we owe it to ourselves to embrace the gift our genes bestowed upon us.

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« Episode 5:
Blues for a Red Planet


Episode 7: The Backbone
of Night »


Read more: product review, history, fun, Voyager 1 and 2, Neptune, spacecraft, many worlds, Saturn, Uranus, Jupiter

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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