Reflections on seeing the pictures of Titan

It happened almost 450 years ago: The Dutch astronomer-physicist Christiaan Huygens spotted a huge satellite of Saturn in 1656, and named it Titan. It was left to another Dutch-born astronomer, Gerard Kuiper, to discover in the 1950s that Titan possesses an atmosphere with methane and ammonia. This was the first satellite in our solar system in which an atmosphere was detected. Now, for the first time, human ingenuity has brought to us close-up pictures of the impressive companion of Saturn. No less remarkable was an
eerie sound picked up by a microphone from Titan's atmosphere. In the midst of all the sad and ugly occurrences on our planet, not many realize that this is the very first instance in all of human history when we actually heard a noise from a distance of more than 900 million miles. This is part of the Cosmic Music of which ancient philosophers dreamt. The picture of the landscape revealed by the Titan probe suggests "a spongy surface topped by a thin crust."

This is the kind of technology that is truly wedded to the spirit of science: Not the gadgets that enhance our creature comforts, nor the weapons that decimate our political foes, but a technology that enables us to get a glimpse of an aspect of the marvelous universe of which we are a part, which each of us is aware of for a brief span in time's eternity, and of which we could never have become aware without the terms, tools and techniques of science.

As per current estimates, the universe has been there for more than ten billion years, and our own solar system for at least four and a half. But never in all of this long stretch of time was Titan unraveled the way it has been during these past few days. Human consciousness has transformed mere existence into palpable experience and meaningful knowledge. This makes consciousness significant - perhaps unique - in a cold and colorless cosmos. Did this consciousness arise by the sheer accident of the chemistry of macromolecules, or by some grander design? This is the question on which serious thinkers differ and debate endlessly. Accident and
emergence are sufficient to explain it all, contends one group. No, declares another group: A marvel of this magnitude, like a large library, could not have happened on its own. In the view of some others, it is only a matter of vocabulary to make a distinction between intelligent laws that make the world possible and an Intelligent Creator.

To whichever group one may belong, the contemplation of the fact that we have come to see some details of the landscape of a satellite of the planet Saturn of mythological antiquity which is at inconceivably far away and invisible to the naked eye, reveals the power and prestige of science, the wonder of Nature, and the extraordinary potential of human consciousness. In some, the consequent awe fills the heart with a Mystery that has no easy answers.

V. V. Raman
Jan 17, 2005