American Scientist

(…) Mars also makes an appearance in Michael Benson’s Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes (Abrams, $55), but here the Red Planet must share some space with the other members of our solar system. Like Croswell, Benson takes advantage of the marvelous images produced by interplanetary spacecraft in the past few decades to introduce the astronomically shy to our celestial neighbors. But this time, it’s not so much a science tutorial as an art appreciation class. Benson sees these images of other worlds as dramatic landscapes no less wonderful than those in Ansel Adams’s photographs. And he’s right, some of these images are every bit as moving as an Adams photo. The difference is that the planetary images were made by mindless probes, snapping pictures as they whirled their way through outer space. And Benson gives the spacecraft much credit for the dazzling shots.

But an underlying theme of the book—that unthinking machines can create art—sets up an interesting debate between two invited guests: futurist Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote a foreword about the next step in the evolution of intelligence, and writer Lawrence Weschler, the author of an elegant afterword about the meaning of human existence.

Clarke writes, “Michael [Benson] is right to locate the potential beginnings of a next evolutionary step in the successful deployment of robots like the space probes. If you don’t believe in the creative capabilities of these machines, look at these photographs.” Intelligent machines can explore the world “in a manner that can only be called inquisitive,” Clarke says. “So we need look no further for the famous ‘missing link’—it is us. As Nietzsche said, Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman—a rope across the abyss.”

And this incites Weschler to respond:

‘The thing is, I think Arthur Clarke and the hearty band of futurists whose thinking he echoes in some of the notions he advances in the preface to this volume, get it all wrong. (Gloriously, thrillingly, even inspiringly wrong—but wrong nonetheless.) . . . Granted: an entity capable of learning from experience and profiting from its mistakes may be said to evince a kind of intelligence and maybe even of creativity. But that sort of intelligence or creativity is not the fundamental bedrock of human consciousness. What about awe—surely the overwhelming experience called forth in the merely human readers of this book? We are here . . . because without us here to study it, the amazing complexity of the world would be wasted. And the way that amazing ravishing complexity is experienced among humans is through the sense of awe—precisely the sense (and perhaps in the end, the only one) that machines and probes may themselves never prove capable of replicating.’

But Benson has the last word (in a response to Weschler’s afterword):

“You say that ‘for all its whirring gadgetry, a probe in itself is in the end precisely the way a rock is a rock, and nothing more.’ But remember my story about that Mars rover—about how its ‘mother ship’ expired, but it itself for various reasons was less vulnerable to the cold? And may well have ‘lived’ a good deal longer than anybody on Earth was aware of? Recall the following astounding sentence, from a NASA press release: ‘The health and status of the rover is unknown, but it is probably circling the vicinity of the lander, attempting to communicate with it.’

The point of course being, does a rock circle its dead ‘mother,’ trying to communicate with it? Is this a rock, and ‘nothing more’? Or is matter doing something odd, and interesting, and unprecedented here—unprecedented, I mean, apart from the fact that you and I are also made of matter?’”

So flip through the pages of Benson’s book, and Croswell’s book for that matter, and feel awed by the beautiful photographs, then think about the unthinking probes that captured the images.

American Scientist online, December 2003

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