November 23, 2005,
Did you read about the new moons of Pluto? Well, of course they are not actually new in the sense of having recently been minted. Most probably they have been around for a couple of billion years or so. We only found out about them last month, though, when the Hubble space telescope spotted them. That brings the number of Pluto's known moons up to three. (Don't even get me started on the bore-athon about whether or not Pluto is a true planet or just a glorified-snowball "Kuiper Belt Object." That's worse than the evergreen PC-Mac debate, or Intelligent Design vs. evolution... About which latter I am going to say nothing whatsoever in this column.) Not bad for a planet discovered only 75 years ago, never the object of an exploratory spacecraft, and named after the king of hell.
Pluto is, in fact, the only planet in the solar system not yet visited by a human artifact. This will soon change. In January the New Horizons probe will be launched, for a scheduled rendezvous with the ninth planet in the summer of 2015. If all goes well we shall then have good photographic images of all the planets and of many of our system's lesser inhabitants moons, comets, and asteroids. That will be 571/2 years after Sputnik, the first true spacecraft.
I was 12 when Sputnik was launched, and clearly remember the sensation. A science and science-fiction buff almost from when I began reading, I thought the Russian achievement very thrilling. Having long since tracked down every book on astronomy and rocketry in the local libraries, I was sick of reading about the WAC Corporal rocket that had ascended to a record height of 250 miles in 1949. That seemed forever ago years! Weren't we ever going to break that record? Sputnik did not, in fact, break it, nor even come close; but it attained permanent orbit true space flight and that meant far more than merely lobbing things up to see how high they could go.
The space age followed. I was never as much impressed by manned space travel I now think it a complete waste of public money as by the tiny robot craft that sent back those astounding and wonderful images of alien landscapes. Two years after Sputnik, Luna 3 returned the first ever pictures of the Moon's far side. Five years after that, Mariner 4 burst the bubbles of us Mars romantics by revealing that Percival Lowell was wrong, while the dull plodders who had scoffed at him were right: Mars is not a fertile world covered with irrigation works, but a lifeless desert strewn with craters. It is not a bad thing to suffer a blow to one's romantic imaginings while still at an impressionable age, and to learn that dull plodders are almost invariably right. It shows you that the world is not as we wish it to be, but as it is; and it starts you down the path to true wisdom the "fixed incredulity" that Mrs. Thrale remarked on in the character of Dr. Johnson. (It took Johnson's friends six months to persuade him that reports of the great Lisbon earthquake were true. He was, said one of them, "the last man on earth to whom one should bring a wonder.")
There followed, through the succeeding decades, images of Mercury and Venus, of the great gas giants and their astonishing moons, of the lesser bodies. If the New Horizons mission reaches Pluto intact, my entire adult life will have been encompassed by this most marvelous of all scientific adventures the exploration of the solar system. I wouldn't have missed it for... well, for worlds.
That prompts other reflections about life in these past few decades, and in the next few. The sum total of those reflections is that I have been living in a golden age that will soon end. Born between VE Day and VJ Day, I missed all the greatest horrors of the 20th century. If granted a normal lifespan**, I shall miss the horrors of the 21st, too. If my parents' generation was the greatest, mine has been the luckiest. For that, in this Thanksgiving season, I give sincere and heartfelt thanks.
It is not just space exploration I am thankful for, but I see that bold adventure as symbolic of the age now slipping away. It was a manifestation of our civilization's confidence. Look at what we can do! See where our ever-questing curiosity can take us! supported and funded, of course, by a proud and efficient public culture, in which enterprise and goverment deliver results.
Well, that confidence is now all shot to hell. Enterprise is being choked off by the Iron Triangle of taxation, regulation, and litigation. France's present, of which we have heard so much comment recently, is our future. Government is hopelessly broken. Though far larger now than in 1957, it does less, and it does that less very badly. Its most elementary functions defending our borders, keeping a thrifty eye on the national wealth, apprising us of what our enemies are up to are no longer performed to any effect. The notion that our government might once again put a man on the Moon, let alone Mars, is absurd, and can only induce laughter, or tears, depending on one's mood.
These failures themselves are only symptoms of some more profound civilizational sickness. Western let us be blunt about it: white-European civilization is on its way out. If you make a study of any aspect of cultural history I have just finished a book on one such topic you are struck by the towering achievements of Europeans and their offspring cultures during the 19th century (which lasted from 1815 to 1914). What went before was mere prologue; what came after were futile, frustrated attempts to re-heat the soufflé. There is of course a sense in which the horrors of 1914-1945 were themselves a product of19th-century overconfidence. Once we had got all that out of our system, though, and found the point of balance, the later 20th century was set to be a garden of delights for those of us in free nations. So much was this so, we did not notice that we were romping through that garden in a deepening twilight.
If I compare my own life to the lives of my parents, and to the prospects for my children, I am struck by my immense good fortune in having been born when and where I was. I was actually born early on a Sunday morning, in a nursing home behind St. Matthew's church in Northampton, England, three weeks after VE Day. The church bells were ringing. (A thing that had then only recently been re-permitted. During WW2, the ringing of church bells was to be a signal that the Germans had invaded, and was forbidden for other purposes.) The town's boy scout troop was marching up the Kettering Road to the church, with a band playing. It was some welcome into the universe, though my own recollection of it is naturally incomplete.
Subsequent events justified the joy. I have got through pretty much my entire life without ever having to work very hard, without ever having seen my country invaded, without enduring war or depression, without suffering any horrid illness, without ever going hungry or wanting for anything. What luck! Like Tom Utley writing in the Telegraph the other day I got a free education up to first degree level, with spending money thrown in, and have never had to carry any crushing, nor even inconveniencing, burden of debt. I bought my first house at age 24 and paid for it easily with an undemanding job that occupied me literally and exactly from 9 to 5, with an hour for lunch. (I am not making this up.) When
Sexual intercourse began
I was fit and ready. Lucky! Lucky! Lucky!
I can't believe my kids will have that kind of luck. The welfare state, which provided my education, no longer works not for them, not for anybody. (I sometimes marvel at how well it did work to lift up the deserving poor in the years after WWII. Don't laugh; it really did.) I shall have to beggar myself to put the little Derbs through college, and they will likely still end up with huge debts. There will be no 9-to-5 jobs for them to go to after graduation, quite possibly no jobs at all other than in government work, which by that time will occupy a Soviet-sized slice of the national economy.
The concept that lay beneath and supported our collective consciousness until recently, the concept that white Europeans, their civilization and their bourgeois culture, were the apex of human achievement, will have been shamed, mocked, and badgered out of existence along, of course, with that civilization and that culture. Religion, which, following the lead of my Anglican education, I have always regarded as an occasional source of comfort and inspiration that should on no account be taken too seriously, will have become very serious indeed, with religious fanatics committing murder on the grand scale all over the world. Nuclear weapons, throughout my lifetime kept safe under guard in just a handful of reasonably well-ordered nations, will be traded for cash in third-world bazaars and smuggled into American cities ready for the day of judgement. (Perhaps they already have been.) Clever new viruses will mutate, escape from labs, or be released...
To my kids I should like to say: I am sorry to have brought you into this mess. There were no bells ringing, no bands playing, at either of your births, and it would have been a travesty if there had been. Even the wisest of us people like your Dad, I mean live in part by instinct, and there is no instinct stronger than the one that prompts us to continue the species; so here you are. I am sorry, sorry. There was the Greatest Generation. Then there was ours, the Luckiest. Yours will be the Saddest. Quite possibly so far as this civilization is concerned, at any rate it will be the Last. I shall continue to do my best for you as long as I can, but... après moi le Deluge.