The View from Saturn’s Rings

Saturn's rings and our planet Earth

The Day the Earth Smiled
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

by Ray Grigg

As the Cassini explorer was passing inside the rings of Saturn, it transmitted a digital image back to Earth 900 million miles away. The image sent on July 13, 2013, is an etherial abstract composition of browns, beiges, blues and blacks. The upper left is dominated by a dark quadrant of Saturn’s dense form. Soft arcs slip out from behind to fill the top third of the image, their warm tones marking the circling streams of gas, dust and particles for which Saturn is famous. The lowest and brightest arc punctuates the series with a final and unequivocal assertion. Beneath it, in stark contrast, are the vacant hues of empty space, followed by a flush of faint azure that suggests a diffuse light is exuding from some remote intergalactic distance.

The image is meticulously coloured, balanced, proportioned and detailed, a masterful expression of careful design — except for one tiny and unsettling flaw. Off centre in the background darkness is a white and incongruous dot, perhaps a flaw in the digital transmission. That errant dot — the impulse is to brush it off as an unwelcome piece of dust — is Earth, the place of Cassini’s origin.

This dot and how we understand it deserve some consideration.

A first response might be to remember that this dot is our home in the universe, the only place in all the vastness of space and time where we can experience and marvel at a flourishing abundance of life. The extent to which we can identify with this insubstantial dot is the extent to which we might feel an uncontrollable urge to savour, to honour and to protect it. And, if we remembered with appropriate clarity and perspective, Cassini’s image might be an epiphany, an awakening with enough transformative power to recognize Earth as the treasure it truly is. Even the ordinary grasses, trees, mosses, lichen, flowers, birds, insects — the objects that constitute our daily experiences — might suddenly become miraculous, astounding, incredible, the creations of a process of unmitigated magic. The dot might then brighten into an illuminating moment with no option for recovery.

A second response might be less obvious, filled with implications that require some searching considerations. Cassini’s 900 million mile “optic nerve” — as the Canadian poet and novelist John Steffler called it — from Saturn’s rings to our perceptions on Earth only creates the impression that we are passing near Saturn. Cassini, despite its sophistication, is merely an intermediary that mediates between us and direct experience. Because its eyes are not our eyes, our seeing is vicarious and indirect. So our experience is remote and disembodied, an impersonal and detached sensation which we misconstrue as real.

Much of what we experience in our modern industrialized and commercialized society is composed of similar sensations that reach us through the medium of manufactured objects and fabricated images. A box of breakfast cereal may be our closest contact with a field of real wheat. A high-performance car may be our substitute for manly power and control. A nature documentary may be our most intimate connection to wilderness. A televised hockey game may be our only contact with ice. These are Cassini moments, as remote as Saturn’s rings. Our inventions have conspired with our marketing to mediate between ourselves and direct experience.

This uncomfortable characteristic of our modern civilization is hidden behind a facade of sanitized and respectable credibility. When buying anything — a cellphone, a toaster, a bag of sugar or even a cup of coffee — the industrial activity that provides these products is carefully kept from view. A veil of promotion and packaging hides the reality of pillaged oceans, toxic mines, sacrificed forests, traumatized soil and contaminating chemicals. Careful marketing, cultivated images and promised convenience absolve the conscience of responsibility and guilt. The intent shopper easily forgets that the wrapped meats on the sterile shelves of the supermarket are just a few sobering steps away from the blood and shock of the abattoir.

Much of our modern experience is now vicarious, brought to us in fictitious form by the commerce, machines and gadgets of our own making. Almost everything we experience is presented to us by a Cassini, an intermediary that purports to be conveying reality. Consumer products are marketed as purveyors of happy fulfillment until careful investigation reveals them to be sinister and threatening. Energy corporations promote the merits of pipelines and oil tankers until their crude spills blacken verdant landscapes and stain living oceans with death. Cars, airplanes and ships speed us around the planet until we realize that the treasure and contentment we seek is being home amid the familiar and the loved.

This cultivated separation and insulation from the wonder of the ordinary is the ubiquitous and ominous characteristic of modern civilization. Behind its packaged facade of comfort and convenience is the slowly dawning realization that this massive invention of our collective ingenuity is neither gentle nor pretty.

Exposing civilization’s character is not an easy or a pleasant task — and probably not a welcomed one. It is, after all, the identity of our collective selves, the mirror of who we are. Much can be said in praise of our kindness, cooperation and ingenuity. Many previous civilizations have, perhaps, been far less commendable. But none has been more pervasive, domineering, intrusive and destructive. This is why Cassini is such an accurate measure of our distance from all that really matters.