(originally run January 12, 2001)
We have now arrived, of course, in the year 2001. For some time the evocation of this year might have caused strains of the Richard Strauss composition "Also Spracht Zarathustra" ("Thus Spoke Zoroaster") to echo through one's mind. This all comes from the 1968 motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey, of which Strauss' composition has long been identifed as being the theme music.
2001 was the result of a four-year collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to the movie, this collaboration also produced a novel of the same name, written by Clarke in conjunction with his development of the screenplay. Although there are some differences in the respective storylines between the book and the movie -- in particular, whereas the action in the movie takes place near Jupiter, in the book it takes place among the moons of Saturn -- in general the two works tell the same basic story.
Now that 33 years have elapsed since the movie and book were released, it can be interesting to compare today's reality with the vision put forth by Kubrick and Clarke. To put this comparison into perspective, we should remember that the collaboration was done during the early days of the Apollo era, and the movie's release preceded by a few months the first human flight to leave Earth orbit -- Apollo 8 -- and took place a year before the Apollo 11 mission which produced humanity's first footprints on the moon.
In terms of human spaceflight, we are certainly nowhere near the vision depicted in 2001. Kubrick and Clarke envisioned a permanent human presence on the moon (such as the Clavius moon base in the story) and human missions taking place to Mars by now. Other features of their vision include space stations such as the giant pinwheel-shaped structure depicted in the movie, and semi-regular passenger service between the Earth and this station, and between the station and the moon. The reality is that there have been no manned missions to the moon since 1972, and while missions both to the moon and to Mars are often discussed, there are at present no concrete plans to accomplish either of these within the immediately foreseeable future. Meanwhile, within the past two years construction has indeed begun on an orbiting international space station, but this is a much smaller and simpler structure than that shown in 2001.
On the other hand, the news isn't all bad. In 2001 Jupiter and its moons (and, in the book, Saturn and its moons) are essentially unknown, mysterious bodies. Thanks to robotic space missions such as the twin Voyager spacecraft which passed by these two planets in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Galileo spacecraft which has been in orbit around Jupiter since late 1995, we have amassed a tremendous amount of knowledge about these objects, and we've come to appreciate the enormous diversity of landscapes and phenomena they represent. In the book, as the astronauts swing by Jupiter to "slingshot" themselves off toward Saturn -- exactly what the two Voyager spacecraft did -- they drop instrumented probes into that planet's atmosphere, and Galileo did this very thing when it first arrived at Jupiter five years ago.
A couple of minor astronomical comparisons have caught this author's attention. In the timeframe of the book, less than ten thousand asteroids had precisely determined orbits, and during their transit of the asteroid belt the astronauts encounter asteroid number 7794, which had been discovered at the Lunar Observatory in 1997. In reality, there is of course no Lunar Observatory, but Earthbound telescopes have been doing a thorough job; today over 20,000 asteroids have had precisely determined orbits, and asteroid 7794 was actually discovered in 1996 by astronomers in Italy. The book also has the number of known moons of Jupiter as being 36; the real current tally is 28, with many of these having been announced just within the past few months.
We can make comparisons in other areas besides just spaceflight activity and astronomy. We have not quite produced anything like the HAL 9000 computer in the story, but present-day computer technology, including the news- and message-sharing capability of the Internet, are nevertheless far advanced from where we were in 1968. We also don't quite have the video-telephones depicted in the movie, although again advancing computer technology is making great strides in this type of communication.
On other fronts, the news is mixed. The book mentions "the thirty-eight nuclear powers," and although that -- fortunately -- has not come to pass, nuclear weapons proliferation remains an issue of much concern. The book also mentions that the world's population is over six billion -- which indeed has come to pass and that there were massive food shortages, including "meatless days" within the U.S. Although hunger has been, and remains, a problem in parts of the world, we are, fortunately, not to this point -- yet. On a more positive slant, both the movie and the book depict friendly collaborations between American and Russian scientists, and thanks in large part to the fall of the Iron Curtain a decade ago this is indeed happening, both in science and in other aspects of international relations.
The main theme of the story in 2001, i.e., contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial race, remains fiction for now. In the meantime, comparative exercises such as those in the above paragraphs should help us to realize that humanity's true future is as yet unwritten. The many problems we as a society face are our responsibility, and if we are to overcome these and realize our true potential, then we must have the courage, and the will, to do so.
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