Thursday, March 27, 2008

Enceladus and the fountains of paradise

It's been just a few days since the news of the death of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. It got me thinking of the first time I saw the movie "2001: a space odyssey" with my mother, when I was in my early teens and stayed in the movie theater for four consecutive shows. I saw the movie many times again over time, after those consecutive four, and it was the first movie I owned on DVD.

"The fountains of paradise" is often regarded as Clarke's best novel. Its intricate themes revolve around the complex, tense and fragile balance between rationality and mysticism and the contrasting fascinations of progress and nature. The narration is structured in a succession of brief flashes, jumping back and forth between different intertwined histories. One of them is the story of the engineer Vannevar Morgan, who tries to realize his most ambitious project: a space elevator that connects a high mountain top on the Earth's equator to a space station in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above. This scenario is interlaced with a different story of grandiose plans and audacious engineering: that of the ancient king of Sri Lanka (renamed the island of Taprobane in the novel and relocated at a more equatorial latitude) who built the palace/fortress of Sigiriya (renamed Yakkagala in the novel) on a mountain top, a kind of step in between Earth and Heaven meant to elevate the king to the heights of the immortals, amidst improbable hanging gardens, with their magnificent frescoes and their "fountains of paradise". For all the brutality that characterizes his ruling, the king also represents another aspect of the same visionary power and drive that are embodied by the modern engineer Vannegar Morgan, an alter ego, a shadow that speaks through the ages. Interestingly, in the novel the king is named after the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, as if to forcibly superimpose his visionary and imaginative side over that of the brutal tyrannical ruler. There are two other subplots that also play a major role in shaping the meaning of the "fountains of paradise": one is the story of the monastery on top of the mountain and the scientist turned mystic, the Venerable Parakarma formerly Choam Goldberg, who mounts an opposition to Morgan which is in fact again only another aspect of himself. While being on the opposite sides of the rationality/mysticism divide they in fact share the same background and culture and are more keens than opponents. Not even the aliens are alien in this novel: the other, and most intriguing, subplot in the novel is the story of Starglider, the robotic alien probe that liberates Earth from religion. Starglider is again the same conscience of Morgan and Kalidasa, presented at yet another layer of abstraction, but once more a character that is one and the same with the other main characters of the story. The final vision of the artificial ring surrounding a cold future earth, with space elevators connecting it to the ground, and with the contact with the alien intelligence finally achieved, realize the merging of all these different shadows, who played out their roles in the previous parts of the novel, into a single fulfilled utopian dream.

"Politics and religion are obsolete; the time has come for science and spirituality" (Jawaharlal Nehru)

In these same few days I've been looking at the NASA images of the "Fountains of Enceladus" after the marvelous Cassini flyby of March 12. These veritable "fountains of paradise" revealed a hot core containing complex organic molecules, where nobody expected to find anything much but an inert frozen worlds. The richness of the many worlds in our solar system has still quite a number of surprises in store. It is that same dream that Clarke so aptly described in his novel that drives us now to color with wonder the latest images of the probe: how can a satellite like Enceladus be chemically similar to a comet?

I got in the habit of browsing the JPL website in the past few days out of a very natural curiosity, which has more to do with my imminent future and possible relocation. It's been a long time since I have been working for that type of institution. It reminds me of a time, more than ten years ago, when I was equally eagerly browsing through the web pages of the MIT labs, waiting for the end of my last semester of graduate school and waiting to start my first real job there. Life moves on in large waves that last several years and deposit you eventually on a distant shore after a long tumultuous ride. I am perhaps beginning to see a shore approaching where I'll set foot to ride a new and seemingly very different wave crest to the next destination. I cannot help trying to imagine what it would be like to ride that space elevator of Clarke's "fountains of paradise" taking in a broader and broader image of the world as it climbs up to orbit. Maybe this is in fact an even more fitting image of how life proceeds.