Where is your home?

The place that you fled,
You’ve taken it with you.
The place that’s there now?
You’ve never even seen it.

Where is your home?

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Alpha Centauri, here i come!

What is it about space travel that is so alluring? Even a ‘short’ journey in space takes a long, long time. It’s cold up there, dangerous up there and, what’s worse, for long stretches there’s nothing up there. Alpha Centauri is the star system nearest to our own and even that is over four light years away – or to put it another way 25.6 trillion miles; and yet, when you get there, most of the universe is going to look much the same as it does from Earth, because as vast as the distance from here to there sounds, in relation to the size of the Universe it’s trivial.

And yet…

Ever since i can remember i have longed to make that voyage. Alpha Centauri is my love, my other. It is all that is unattainable – the 99.999999% of the Universe which not only will i never visit, but to which a visit would be impossible.

For me but not for my descendants? Because it is conceivable that one day we – as in human beings – could make such a journey; whereas for most of the Universe no such possibility exists. We would have to become something other than human – and would therefore no longer be ‘us’ – to endure the centuries, millennia even, that even the fastest spacecraft would require for the trip to other galaxies.

Even measured in light years the distances to these can run into the billions; and at such a distance, there is no way of knowing if the galaxies are still there. After all if the picture we’re seeing is billions of years old, who knows what’s happened since? And their size! In what way is it meaningful to visit a galaxy? We live in a galaxy, but if we were to climb into a spaceship at birth and visit a planet – or even a star a day – we wouldn’t see them all before we died. 100 to 400 billion: that is how many stars our galaxy contains.

By contrast, a visit to another star system sounds positively manageable. And what an experience! Imagine seeing the Sun as a yellow pinprick in the darkness. For just as Alpha Centauri is visible from Earth, so the Sun would be visible from a planet orbiting either of the two stars* in that system. Just as astronauts, when they saw the Earth from the Moon, gained for the first time a sense of the Earth as an object separate from themselves; so from Alpha Centauri we would gain something like the same perspective on our Solar System.

Might Alpha Centauri contain an alternative Earth? Unlikely, given its twin suns, but it doesn’t stop people dreaming, especially those of us who have never felt fully at home on this Earth. The important thing is that it remains unknown and thus is the perfect playground for dreams and nightmares, much as was true of Mars or Venus before spacecraft revealed the more prosaic truth: that Mars is an empty red desert and Venus** an inferno. We may still wonder sometimes about the possibility of life on Mars, but for the most part our Martian fantasies are now not about what we might find there but what we might create there: terraforming. There’s another parallel too: just as Mars and (occasionally) Venus have been conceived as mirrors or twins to the Earth, so Alpha Centauri performs this function for the Solar System as a whole.

I think, having considered it, that all these factors play their part for me: the longing to attain the unattainable; the need to reduce the universe to something more intelligible; the desire to see the reality i live within from without; and an adult version of my childhood dreams of a passage to other worlds.

* Actually, there are three but the third, Proxima, is much smaller and dimmer.
** An atlas we had when i was a child included an ‘artist’s depiction of what Venus might look like’. It showed a lush, vaguely prehistoric looking jungle.

The next bend of the river

I was always running away from home as a child. Not, as you might assume, because i was desperately unhappy, but because i was desperate to see the amazing world i was sure was just round the next bend of the river. Or maybe the next bend after that. I was a keen reader of adventure stories of all kinds, especially those involving the Famous Five; but my great inspiration was a film (or possibly a TV programme) i saw about a boy who ended up living by himself next to a river in a forest. I think it might have been set in Canada, but what did that matter? There was no doubt in my mind that there was a forest just as vast, wild and magical just a bit further along my river. If only i could get there.

Two attempts at reaching it remain in my memory. On the first occasion i ran away with my brother. We planned it all quite carefully and made a stack of jam butties to keep us going on our journey. A mile or two along the river we discovered we were already hungry; so down we sat and ate a butty each… and then another. In no time at all they were all gone – much to our surprise. We’d never really thought about how many we would need for our trek; four had seemed quite adequate. Still we continued on and on, past E_____ village and into the uncharted territory which lay beyond it. I was starting to get quite excited. I had never been so far along the river before and was convinced we must be nearing my much imagined forest – after all, we’d walked miles! Then disaster struck: we encountered nettles. I was determined to carry on (we were so close!) but my brother started to cry as he was repeatedly and painfully stung. Our memories differ at this point, it has to be said: he is convinced that he (and only he) was wearing shorts, whereas i am convinced that we both were. Anyway, we were both starting to get hungry and so we turned back. End of attempt.

Later i tried again, this time with our dog Sally. Alas, the adventure was over even more quickly! First of all, it was impossible to get Sally to grasp the seriousness of our quest. She kept wandering off. And then only a mile or so along the river she decided to go for a swim (she loved swimming), but unfortunately then discovered that she couldn’t get back out; the bank was too steep and too slippy. There was no alternative: i would have to get into the river and help her. So i did. I hauled her, i pushed her and then i hauled her some more – all of this with no help from Sally herself. She seemed to think the whole thing was a game and didn’t appreciate that i was trying to get her out of the water. By the time she was back on dry land (none the worse for her ordeal) i was wet, cold and tired. And hungry, the food having been eaten even more quickly than the last time. Note to small would-be adventurers: provisions do not last long when they’re shared with a dog.

Perhaps i made more attempts, i’m not sure. In the end though my mission was doomed. Not just because the forest wasn’t there – although i grant you that was a factor – but because i was growing up. The geography of the real world was supplanting that of the imagination.