Alan Duff: The immeasurable rewards of experience

Alan Duff
Alan Duff: The immeasurable rewards of experience

The New Horizons spacecraft, after 4.76 billion kilometres and 9.5 years, with a gravity assist boost from Jupiter to increase the speed to 83,000kph, was an astonishing achievement and the tiny planet a mystery no longer, and a raft of scientific questions have been answered.

This mind-boggling journey was 72 seconds ahead of schedule – equivalent to a grain of sand on a beach of about 4.5 million grains. Or the same as throwing a dart at a flea on the moon and hitting it between the eyes. The living organisms that rose from the primordial soup and over billions of years became primates which branched off into homo sapiens, they did this.

25 years ago in my first novel a character I called Mr Telescope Man asked: “If one is blind, a sea dweller, or a dweller in perpetual darkness, then what matter the stars?” A question that bothered him. He thought further of those humans “born to circumstances, social circumstances, into cultures who and which are blind to the Great Beyond. And it gave him a sense of almost grieving. For them. The deprived.” Really, they are the thoughts of the author.

Not trying to hector here, just registering a certain sadness for those whose eyes do not extend past their immediate world. As a 15 year old taking the shortcut route through the Rotorua Golf Course at night several times a week, with often the sky full of stars, I'd stop and just gaze, a troubled boy distracted from his woes by wonder, awe, and so many questions. I was lucky having a father who'd raised us on appreciating the firmament, taking us out on chilly nights and explaining the different star formations, the vast distances, the scope of not just our own Milky Way galaxy but the millions of others way beyond ours.

Pull out quote Experience

To intrude with a personal note here – though relevant, I think – we siblings would wonder why our enlightened father had no explanation for the harsh voice and inevitable harsher presence of someone whose existence blighted all our lives. Then again, that’s part of the human condition: some people are just not capable of lifting their eyes to marvel at what’s there, every cloudless night. I managed to turn that life into something positive. But one never forgets.

Anyway, one night crossing the golf course – oh, and you must add the gurgling and choking sound-effects of Rotorua’s thermal activity into the picture – I found myself making a ‘deal’ with whatever had the powers, that if I could travel the universe and have a means of reporting back to Earth, I’d be prepared for a one-way journey.

Of course in my juvenile mind no social or practical issues existed, including aging. Just my fervent desire to romp through outer space – at the speed of light, of course. Though as this column has previously mentioned, even at that velocity it would take 100,000 years just to reach the edge of our galaxy.

I think my puerile mind was expressing something pure: that the sacrifice was worth the mere single life since the rewards of discovery/experience would be immeasurable. I'm sure that’s what drives scientists, the joy of discovering something new, of having a nagging question finally answered, theories confirmed that in turn confirm the power of mathematics, or just knowing.

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I have a wealthy close friend who is driven by the simple ethos of wanting to live a useful life. That is all. He doesn't have a billionaire goal, has no desire to own a superyacht or have his own jet. He just wants be useful. Excellence in everything he does is another of his outlooks. But it is certainly not some hedonistic, materialistic shallow lifestyle he chases, like a coffee with gold flakes, or a hamburger that costs $15,000. Another wealthy friend is happiest when he’s buried in a book.

Of course money and advancement are important. But so is reflection and taking the time out from the chase to contemplate other than the dollar subject. Even the brokest of us in Western societies are wealthy in terms of the infrastructure and institutions that protect our rights and freedoms, the countless gadgets and our supermarkets overflowing with choice.

My voice is just a little whisper, like the attendant in the Roman warrior’s ear saying: Power is fleeting. Like he who chases money too hard ends up eating his own tail.  

We should all just lift our eyes heavenwards every once in a regular while.