A Giant Leap For MankindT. SHER SINGH
Sunday, August 26, 2012
It was an event which held the awe of men, women and children around the globe: on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on the moon surface.
Neil Armstrong, that brave pioneer who performed the extraordinary feat, in conjunction with his colleagues, died yesterday, at the age of 82.
I don’t believe the impact of what he did was fully captured by the much-quoted words coined by a talented copy-writer and uttered by Armstrong as he stepped down on the moon's soil: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
I think that single act changed us seminally as a species. Not unlike what Charles Darwin had done a century and a decade before, with his publication of “On The Origin Of The Species.”
Yes, I see both as representing two unique turning points in the history of human evolution in modern times, unlike anything else I can think of. But for different reasons and in different ways, the two of them.
Darwin’s tome began the process of freeing us from the age-old literalizing of the poetry and mythology that we had inherited from our religious leaders during the last four or five millennia. One by one, wild claims by priests and pundits of every ilk crumbled and turned into dust. The line between mythology and reality, between legend and history, became clear.
No doubt, there are still people around who are still struggling to grapple with that fundamental change in our knowledge, but are straggling along, slow but sure, towards reality. Darwin left no room for a reversal of the process he had begun.
And we as humanity are the better for it.
That brings me to Armstrong’s feat 110 years later.
It was a turning point in space exploration, they tell us. Indeed, scientists have made huge strides forwards into the unknown, gathering new bits and pieces of information, constantly readjusting what we think we know about the universe.
Sure, we’ve landed man-made objects on other heavenly bodies since, each retrieving for us more data. We keep on stretching our arms further.
All we’ve proved, I’m afraid - not meaning to take away even a bit from the extraordinary strides so far - is, in Einstein’s own words, how little we know. In fact, the further we make inroads into the great unknown, the more clear it becomes to us how infinitesimally small and insignificant we are.
Here’s one way of looking at it: this so called “God particle“ that we “discovered” the other day. Compare its size with that of the universe as we know it, and that’s about the proportion of the size of the universe as we know it, compared to the real size of the universe that’s really out there.
That, in scientific terms, despite our ostentations, translates into: we are nothing, we know nothing, that we are insignificant in the larger scheme of things.
That’s all we know. We don’t know enough beyond that to be able to come to any further conclusions from that bit of hard fact. Such as the meaning of life, for example.
So what exactly has Armstrong done for us?
I remember when news of the moon landing broke for us in Patna and India. There was no television around then in a perennially primitive India. It was the morning newspapers that gave us the tidings.
It was summertime. Though the rainy season had begun, we still slept on the roof-top at night when the weather permitted it.
I remember looking up at the sky each night thereafter, at the moon as it flitted between clouds. It didn’t take me long to realize - I was about to outgrow my teens then - that the moon looked different now.
Actually, I wasn’t even looking at the moon any more. It was the stars that began to intrigue my imagination. Which one would be next, when another man would land on it. And then another, on another. What would they find? What would it all mean for us back here on earth?
It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ any more. Only ’what’ and ’when’ and ‘where’. And ’how’.
That’s what Armstrong did for us, to us, and left as changed for ever. He destroyed the ’if’ in our imagination.
He took the awe out of everything around us.
He gave meaning to the words that Fauja Singh would turn into a slogan less than half-a-century later: “Nothing is Impossible.”
Though the moon-landing was but a minimal feat, the smallest of steps imaginable, in the larger scheme of things that the universe is, it expanded our imagination so that there was no horizon left any more.
I remember not long thereafter, somebody told me - I’m talking about 1969! - that we would have telephones before long in which we’ll be able to see each other as we talk, in live, moving, real-time, not still, pre-shot images. My friend who told me about what he had heard snickered at the wild idea, as if we were talking about the comic-book world of the Jetsons.
“Why not?” I remember thinking. “Sure. No reason why they can’t do it.”
A few years later, someone else told me that there are rumours that scientists are working on instantly transporting human being through space and time. A sort of “Beam me up, Scottie” scenario.
He giggled at the silliness of the idea, of even thinking that such a thing would ever be possible.
I recall thinking about it. And not taking long to shrug of his scepticism by saying to myself: “Why not? It’s possible. Anything is possible!”
Now, let me hasten to add that I’m not saying that it is indeed possible to do it. What I’m talking about is the fact that we are now able to think that it is possible. That anything is possible. That nothing is impossible.
Before 1969, when we heard of some outlandish idea, we dismissed it as mere fantasy. Today, when we hear of the craziest idea imaginable, we give it no thought. Our brain tells us that it possible, and we move on to another thought, not overly impressed by what we’ve heard.
A thriving human community on the Moon? On Mars? Entirely in the realm of possibility today!
Technology that will permit human beings to live for ever? Entirely in the realm of possibility - at least in our imagination, if not in reality. Proof? The field of Cryogenics and its frolic with the very idea of cryopreservation! Hundreds of millions of real dollars are actually being spent on this idea today.
I’m not saying it’s crazy. I’m not saying its possible. That’s not the focus of this piece.
All I’m saying is that it is now - as is the wildest idea you or I can come up with - accepted by intelligent people as being within the realm of possibility.
That’s what Armstrong did in 1969. He enlarged our imagination to the size of infinity.
Darwin had exploded the idea of God being a mere four or five thousand years old, and confirmed the Sikh belief that God is Timeless:
aad sach jugaad sach …
Truth before time
Truth throughout time
Truth here and now
Says Nanak, Truth is evermore
Armstrong came along and exploded the idea that God is limited to a man-made realm of heaven and earth, and confirmed the Sikh belief that God is Infinite:
asankh naav asankh thav
Countless are Your names and countless Your places,
Unreachable and unfathomable are Your countless spheres …
Like with Darwin, there is no turning back for humanity after Neil Armstrong. That is our great debt to him.
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 26, 2012, 12:31 PM.
It was indeed a great moment when the Apollo capsule landed on the moon and to hear the first cryptic transmission: "Eagle has landed" and the subsequent the first famous words when Neil Armstrong stepped out on lunar surface. There were, of course, a slew of our own jokes. A Nihang Singh announced that he would do better: soon, he would be landing on the Sun's surface. "But Nihand Sahib, the Sun will be too hot." "No to worry," replied the Nihang in his usual chardi kala. "Not to worry: we will be traveling at night". We radio amateurs were absolutely delighted as then we were already bouncing radio signals off the moon surface to make long distant contacts in Morse Code.