On Jan. 1 we reached Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped rock in the Kuiper Belt. Out on the edge of the solar system, the New Horizons spacecraft is transmitting images back home.
This is an inspiring story with which to begin the new year. Let’s take a moment to celebrate the audacity of the human spirit and the power of science.
New Horizons was launched in 2006. It took nine years to reach Pluto and another four to reach Ultima Thule, 4 billion miles from the sun. This is so far away that it takes a signal six hours to travel back to earth. The scientific prowess that made this mission possible is awe-inspiring.
This story is not only about science, it is also about the human imagination. The name “Ultima Thule” means the farthest place. This is an ancient name for a fabled island in the farthest north. Ultima Thule is the undiscovered country lying just over the horizon.
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The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sang of Ultima Thule in 1880. He wrote:
Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.
Ultima Thule is not a final destination. It is the always evolving aim of the audacious. There are always new horizons to explore. Life is an endless quest. It is only for a while that we rest.
We are always going farther, pushing the limits of what we know and who we are. This is what Longfellow suggests in one of his best-loved poems, “A Psalm of Life.” He writes:
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
The urge to go farther is not without its perils. In another poem Longfellow tells of a young mountaineer whose relentless pursuit of a summit leads to his death. The motto of the mountaineer is “excelsior,” which means ever upward, ever onward.
The spirit of excelsior is found in every new year’s resolution. We vow to do more, see more, and be more. Every year, with the turning of the calendar, we celebrate our achievements, mourn our losses, and resolve to keep moving onward and upward.
But excelsior alone is insufficient. Audacity without wisdom is dangerous. Boldness requires prudence and self-restraint. And we have to be prepared for what we will discover – and what we will become. The problem of excelsior is that once we leap forward, it is not easy to get back home.
Not too long ago, astrologists looked to the heavens for signs from the gods. Today we are looking back on earth from the cold empty void. We are alone in the universe. We cling to small bits of land on a watery globe. The bounty of life is only made possible by an atmosphere that is not too hot, not too cold.
Our time here is limited. The dinosaurs died; and so will we. Our demise may be hastened by our own technological prowess. We are changing this fragile planet by burning the dead carbon of ancient epochs.
For hundreds of thousands of years, our species lived in balance with the ecosystem. But then in the blink of a volcano’s eye, we developed the science and technology that has allowed us to reach Ultima Thule. These same technologies may lead to our doom. Or, if we are wise, we may save ourselves – from problems we have created.
This requires self-knowledge. The quest for Ultima Thule teaches us something about the human spirit. To be human is to be restless. This restlessness creates the problems we confront.
We can’t help ourselves. We are always looking for further horizons to cross. We develop new technologies and visit new worlds. Ever onward we march. But caution is in order. Excelsior is perilous. And Ultima Thule always remains just beyond our reach.
So in the new year, as we resolve to do more, learn more, and be more, let’s also resolve to be wise. The farther we go, the more dangers we encounter – and the more difficult it is to find our way back home.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala