"We are here!" Interstellar Messages and Why the Humanities Matter

By Caroline Winter

Why study the humanities? It’s a question that doesn’t seem to go away no matter how many times it’s answered or in how many different ways. Here, I’d like to propose yet another answer, one that also answers a related question: why study Romanticism? This answer was inspired by two videos about science, of all things: an episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s series Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey, and a YouTube video in the Vsauce series that describes our efforts to send messages into space, in the hope that we’re not alone in the universe.

The Cosmos episode “A Sky Full of Ghosts” describes the Romantic physicist and astronomer William Herschel (1738–1822) explaining to his young son that, because the light from very distant stars takes so long to reach our eyes, looking at those stars is a way to see into the past. Some of these stars are ghosts, he explains: “we see their light, but their bodies perished long, long ago.” As a Romanticist, I’m fascinated by the idea of stargazing as time travelling, and it reminds me of the time/space telescoping in Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour (PoetryFoundation.org, l. 1–4)
This idea, however, also speaks to another concept at the heart of Romantic thought and poetics: ephemerality. Herschel’s observation about the stars reveals that those stars have a kind of mortality, suggesting that the universe itself is as mortal as we are.
This ephemerality is, of course, at the core of Anne Mellor’s concept of Romantic irony, the paradox of simultaneous making and un-making, or existence and non-existence. Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” springs to mind as an example of how this paradox is expressed poetically: poetry has the power to give form to chaos, but that form and the stasis it imposes is a kind of death. Ozymandias’ statue is meaningful not because it stands, but because it is failing to stand.
“Ozymandias” is important to this train of thought in another way, too, since it connects Romantic irony with the idea of expression. The words on the statue’s pedestal read
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (PoetryFoundation.org l. 10–11)
This despair is the source of the poem’s irony, of course, but the king’s assertion is what I’m most interested in. The plaque is an expression of his existence. The idea of expression is at the core of Romanticism, I would argue, most clearly evident, perhaps, in Wordsworth’s well-known definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” in the Preface to the 1800 Lyrical Ballads (Bartleby.com). In Wordsworth’s theory, it is as if poetry were squeezed out of—expressed from—the poet, as MH Abrams discusses in The Mirror and the Lamp. Expression of subjectivity—of our existence—is at the core of Romantic literature, as we know, evident in its emphasis on lyric poetry and in free indirect discourse.
The second video, an episode of Vsauce called “Messages for the Future,”  describes our efforts to send messages into space—what host Michael Stevens calls “cosmic messages in a bottle.” The episode touches on many fascinating issues, including the challenge of recording our ideas for recipients who will likely be vastly different than us in ways we can’t imagine. This is a problem of expression not that different from Ozymandias’s problem: how can we record our message in a way that will last? How can we ensure that the recipients understand what we meant to say (and what kind of ironies will our messages be subject to?) These messages are written using the language of math and physics, the most universal language we have, and we hope the recipients will be able to decipher them just as we have deciphered hieroglyphics. In fact, Stevens compares geostationary satellites carrying such messages, such as EchoStar XVI (launched in 1976), to the pyramids. EchoStar XVI will be in orbit for billions of years, but eventually it will come to rest in one of many satellite “graveyards,” areas of space that as Stevens says are “tombs, in a way, not for kings, but for machines.”
Just as Ozymandias’ message is an expression of his existence, so our interstellar messages—those sent into deep space—are attempts to express the fact of our existence across vast stretches of space and time. Stevens calls these messages “our most distant hellos.” With them, Stevens says, we will tell recipients “Hello! We exist!” Or, if humanity is gone, and our messages as ghostly as the light from distant stars, we will tell them “Hello! We existed! This is what we were.”
Think of all the work by mathematicians, engineers, physicists, astronomers, and others necessary to make it possible to send these messages into space. All of that work is in the service the humanities—after all, what are the humanities but expressions in various forms of the existence of us?
After watching these videos, I couldn’t help thinking that we are essentially Dr. Seuss’s Whos (in the 2008 adaptation of Horton Hears a Who), shouting “We are here! We are here! We are here!” into the void, just in case someone will hear us. Studying the humanities—studying Romanticism—helps us understand why.

One Reply to “"We are here!" Interstellar Messages and Why the Humanities Matter”

  1. A neatly argued piece. But I would like to claim Herschel for the eighteenth century just as much as the Romantic era; his exceptionally long life makes him an interesting case of one who adapted himself to a changing intellectual environment.

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