The above video, created by artist Alphonse Swinehart, is not intended to show flashy graphics of outer space, like the ones we expect to see in a Sci-Fi blockbuster. It's intended to bring the viewer a more sobering gift: Perspective.
Riding Light offers a real-time voyage of a photon expelled out of the surface of our sun, traveling at 186000 miles per second (1080 million kilometers per hour) --the standard speed of light in the vacuum of space-- across the inner Solar System and past Jupiter and its moons. Covering a distance of more than 780 million kilometers, it still takes light almost three quarters of an hour to reach the Jovian system, hinting at the inconceivably vast distances separating us from everything else in the Universe.
I've taken liberties with certain things like the alignment of planets and asteroids, as well as ignoring the laws of relativity concerning what a photon actually "sees" or how time is experienced at the speed of light, but overall I've kept the size and distances of all the objects as accurate as possible. I also decided to end the animation just past Jupiter as I wanted to keep the running length below an hour.
The video, though beautiful and scored with brilliant music, will nonetheless prove taxing to most viewers. Many will only stand a few minutes, find it boring and move on to other things; others might leave it on while multitasking or checking their Twitter feed; perhaps you'll receive a phone call and will be forced to press pause. All those things you'll have the liberty to do, because you're comfortably sitting in your home or office; but imagine you were on board a spacecraft traveling at just a tiny fraction of the speed of light, en route to the Kuiper belt which is 50 AU (astronomical units) away from the Sun --by comparison, Jupiter is only 5 AU away from the Sun; the icy shell of the Oort cloud, the conventional frontier of our planetary neighborhood, is 75000 AU away from the Sun. And beyond that… the great inky void separating us from our nearest cosmic neighbor, Proxima Centauri.
"The stars are not for Man." That was the gloomy warning presented by Arthur C. Clarke in his seminal novel Childhood's End [Amazon US & UK] --a realization he himself ironically refused to accept, thus including the paradoxical note "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author" (!). Regardless of whether tomorrow or in the next hundred years some wünderkid manages to build a working Alcubierre engine or not, or even if those rumors behind the 'impossible EM drive' are more than just media hype, we still have to face the fact that journeying into deep space is not just a problem of bypassing Einstein's law of Relativity; it's quite possible that Homo Sapiens may find itself psychologically incapable of enduring the duress of that dark ocean with its sanity intact.
Even if we feel the stars are beckoning us, perhaps we'll first need to cross our next step in Evolution before taking that deep plunge. Or maybe we won't have that luxury, and will be forced to learning to swim as we go...
Design & Animation: Alphonse Swinehart / aswinehart.com
Music: Steve Reich "Music for 18 Musicians"
Performed by: Eighth Blackbird / eighthblackbird.org