9769 Chinese fishing net man 2

Fort Kochi, Kerala, December 28, 2012

This shot is taken in Fort Kochi, actually a distinct region of the city of Kochi, characterised by its Portuguese colonial past. The city and locale combine many traditions, brought through both conquest and trade.

The man in this image is walking on the boom of a “Chinese fishing net” as they are referred to locally. The structures are very curious things, rigged like a ship, long and spindly like a crayfish, they tilt over the brine of the Keralan backwaters, dangling and dipping wide nets. The shots below illustrate their insect-like appearance and hand-crafted elegance.

At times I look at this shot and feel it is one of the best I’ve ever taken. Then, at other times, it leaves me with a strange feeling of hollowness. Perhaps it is the industrial backdrop and the staunch and grim look on the man’s face. It contains humanity, but doesn’t feel like a celebration of humanity. Though, in a way, that is what it is intended to be.

9298 Chinese fishing nets

9021 Fishing net

The Return

Too much time has passed since I lasted posted a collection of photographs – partly because an air of malaise and pointlessness has set in around blogging, but mostly because I haven’t been excited about recent shots. Ever since my son was born I’ve mostly taken photos of him. This is great in that I have some really lovely images, but not especially interesting for people outside family circles. It’s also true, as noted before, that my range of travel has been somewhat limited, and when we do go somewhere, I’m often too distracted by parenting to spend the time finding the best shots.

Yet, whereas one world might seem to have shrunk, another microcosmic world has expanded exponentially – fatherhood. I say microcosmic because so much of my time is spent with my son, around the house and in the local area. We go through very similar routines most days and visit very familiar places – yet within that I’ve been privileged to develop a whole new perspective on life through watching the development of a human child. Before the weightiness of that eternal, paternal instinct, everything else seems far less important or purposeful. And in that microcosmic universe of my new family I’ve been swallowed somewhat, not unlike the immersion I seek in games – a willing escapism where all is coloured by “I’m a father now.”

So this is a return of sorts. A return to the vanity and exposure of the internet, where I shall post once again my small contribution to human culture, a collection of photos from the first quarter of the twenty-first century, one day to be archived and then utterly lost in the rises and falls and format shifts of the history yet to be made.

4017 Dude upright

4410 Biplane 3

4920 Tree morning

2352 Lady in window B & W

2515 Rusty rail

3933 Happy sunshine

3594 Wedding ring

5569 Leading with the elbow

2377 House wall

1283 Young guys, city

1357 Towel rack

1124 Light thin

0701 Old industrial 2

5812 Making and breaking Guernica

5939 Carriageworks

9882 Parrot head

3000 Crossing infinity

5957 Walk home

2307 Modern times

4574 Blue gate

Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 13, 2009

Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 13, 2009

This photo of a young Hmong girl in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has always given me mixed feelings. At first glance it seems like a gift to any travel photographer – the colourful traditional clothing, the curiously critical look of the subject, the exotic backdrop and setting, and, in truth, I took it without much thought, excited in the moment by the location and keen to capture it all as best as possible. It soon became quite clear, and really, should have been clear from the start, that these children are, rather sadly, paraded about for photographic opportunities in order to make a bit of money. By photographing her I felt complicit in all this and had to ask myself those age old questions about the impact of tourists and tourism, particularly on minority communities. Sure, it brings in dollars, but it’s obviously destructive and warps culture to the point that it becomes some commodified parody of itself.

When travelling, I’m often reminded of a line from Pulp’s Common People: “’Cos everybody hates a tourist, especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.” It’s fair to say that I do take an interest in local concerns and don’t think it’s all such a laugh, but, whatever the case, “the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath” so to speak. Whether I’m helping or hindering people as a tourist, it will always be the case that shortly after arriving I’ll be moving on to the next place and, ultimately, returning home to the decadent cocoon that is Australia.

Prague, June 8, 2007

Prague, June 8, 2007

The elderly gent in this shot seemed to be pausing to pull out a cigarette. I’m not sure whether he did or not – this was the last shot of the sequence – though perhaps I have remembered him doing so and the idea is now fixed. This was taken in Prague on a fine June day in 2007, during my first, only, and rather belated visit to the place. I had long wanted to go to Prague after finding it to be the most talked about city in Europe amongst other backpackers during my inaugural trip around the continent in 1996-7. That was only a few years after the Velvet Revolution and Prague was still opening up to the world – a sexy, dirty and dirt-cheap cultural powerhouse.

By the time I arrived in Prague in 2007, the place had been significantly gentrified. It was striking how clean and well-groomed many of the old buildings were – fresh paint, sandblasted stone-work, clean streets around them. I heard some people – other tourists – complaining about this; as though Prague had lost its edginess and become just another city in Mitteleuropa. For all I know many Czechs may well have felt the same, yet all I could think was how nice it was that this beautiful old city was being looked after properly. Unfortunately part and parcel of this transformation was also a steep rise in the cost of living for locals, partly due to its attractiveness to people like me – tourists. Dammit.

I draw no relation between Prague’s sprucing up and the work this man is doing on the rooftop, which seemed merely a private residence. Yet there was a noticeable amount of construction activity going on – mostly in the way of restoration. It lent the town a sort of spring-clean zeitgeist; an air of getting ready for something, of applying the finishing touches. Clearly my visit was not the focus of all their activity, and I just marched about for a few long, hot days; shooting all the beauty.

My Pet Baby

I’ve had some pretty interesting pets in my time – not so much for variety, we’re talking dogs and cats – but insofar as they had very entertaining and distinct personalities and lived to ripe old ages. We tend to anthropomorphise pets, seeing distinctly human traits in their behaviour, and, ironically, in return, they zoomorphise us, reminding us that we too are animals. This anthropomorphising is hardly surprising with dogs, considering they are humanity’s first experiment in selective breeding and have co-evolved with us from a species which already lived in social groups and understood social dynamics. Cats, on the other hand, are largely wild and transit between the domestic realm and the night-time hunt with ease. We still tend to humanise them, but they are too independent to be anything other than selfish parasites much of the time and, whilst they can be loving and loyal in their own way, it seems largely to gravitate around their own gratification.

It has been almost twenty years since I last had my own pet and have, in the meantime, had to make do with the cats at my parents’ house, or stolen moments with other people’s pets. Recently, however, around fourteen months ago, my partner V and I got a rather special kind of pet – a human baby. We acquired him by fairly traditional means – insemination, gestation and then, nine-months later, birth, and he is, without a doubt, far and away the most interesting pet I’ve ever had.

Magnus - dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Magnus – dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Never before have I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an infant primate – an animal, just like all the other pets I’ve ever had, but one with the potential to do quite incredible things – including rocket science. Let’s face it, however cunning our old Poppy might have been, she was never likely to create an ap or design a new form of propulsion for interplanetary probes. Not that Magnus has done any of these things yet, and, of course, he may never do. But so much is possible, and the possibilities, when contrasted with the present period of utterly dependent infancy, are a constant reminder that Homo Sapiens is, far and away, the most sophisticated animal on the planet – and, initially, the most helpless.

Before Magnus was born, before we even knew his sex, I jokingly referred to our child as ES1 – Experimental Subject  # 1. Because, despite being a very small sample size, I knew that what awaited me was a fascinating opportunity to study a human baby and get a truly intimate sense of how skills and knowledge develop, and to see the process happening before my eyes. This has been one of many saving graces over the last year and a bit; gaining detailed first hand knowledge of something I only understood in an abstract manner.

It is, however, a frustratingly slow process. For the first month he just lay there, moving his mouth like some automated grub, whose only form of communication was to indicate that he wanted feeding. Both V and I were unprepared for how animal-like he was – his eyes even seemed blank, like there was no one home.

7499 Magnus

Hello, anyone in there?

I’ve heard that some people refer to this period as “the fourth trimester”, as though the baby is still, in effect, in the womb and undergoing an extension of gestation. He certainly didn’t seem human and it was a little alienating, though we loved him to pieces and felt nothing but the deepest care and affection for him. Once he began to smile, after roughly a month, he acquired a whole new level of humanity that had been sorely lacking.

From that point forward, it has been a long slog of small milestones. Yet, whilst it is amazing to see him display new skills: Babbling, laughing, holding things and putting them in his mouth, rolling on his side, crawling, standing – there are such long gaps between these developments that one starts to focus on how long it takes for him to realise how to do something very simple. It is a very longue durée approach and I often find myself wondering why the process is so darn slow. At the moment, when playing with one of those toys where one places different shaped blocks through different shaped holes, despite three months’ practice and a couple of very patient teachers, he still doesn’t really get it. Humans are celebrated for their skill at pattern recognition, yet Magnus hasn’t quite grasped that only the triangular block will fit through the triangular hole, the square block through the square hole and so on. He occasionally gets it right, but this seems more random chance than anything else, a lucky hit. It’s also possible that he just doesn’t see the point, yet that doesn’t explain the bashing frustration he sometimes experiences when it doesn’t fit.

He has another toy, which took him about a month to master – a simple wooden triangle with three round holes in it. This came with three round wooden pegs in the primary colours which could be pushed through the holes. If I placed the wooden peg in the hole, he would push it through, no problem.

Pushing through...

Pushing through…

But, when handed the peg and left to do it himself, he continually tried to push it through the wood where there was no hole at all. In fact, he seemed to have the idea that the pegs had special properties which allowed them to be pushed through anything, because he tried for a long time to push them through the floor, through the wall, and, indeed, through me. This experimentation is admirably human, sure, yet the length of time it took him to understand that the pegs went through because there was a hole there already was surprising.

There is, apparently, no cause for alarm with any of this, as it seems most babies are pretty slow at picking some things up. Rather, it is simply the case that with so many complex fundamentals of the world painstakingly learned in our own infancy, we forget how many concepts need to be understood to make sense of something like this.

What's it all for?

What’s it all for?

The only thing I have to go on as to how bizarrely naive Magnus’ view of the world must be, is my own inability to understand basic physics when I was a child. One of my earliest memories, which I have mentioned before, is of being in the bath with my father, around the age of three, possibly slightly younger. When he stood up to get out, naturally the water level went down. Yet this made no sense to me and I asked him why it went down when the water now had so much more room to move around in. My father explained Archimedes’ principle to me and I remember having to really think about this to adjust my understanding. What that memory tells me is that babies, and indeed, toddlers, have almost no innate understanding of physics and geometry. I don’t mean complex maths, but rather, very basic stuff like gravity and motion, shape, mass and the like. They just don’t get it, and it takes at least a couple of years for them to work much of it out. We worked it out so long ago in that early automatic phase, that we forget we had to learn such things at all.

Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on these slow-burns when there are areas which he has mastered much more quickly. He worked out how to swipe touch screen phones to unlock them in a jiffy; it took him just two goes to learn to turn the light switch on and off, and he patiently taught himself how to remove and click my camera lens cover back into place in one session.

I've got this...

I’ve got this…

It took him about a week to work out how to replace the plug in the bath after having removed it. He went about teaching himself this with admirable determination; practising positioning and balancing himself in the water so that when he bent down, his face did not become submerged. Once he got it right, he continued to do it, over and over again, until he was completely confident in his new skill. Now when I say “plug, plug” he will crouch down carefully and pull the plug out – most of the time.

What impresses me most of all with all this is the sheer diligence and determination with which he will approach these tasks. Sure, he doesn’t have much else to do, but when he is determined to learn something, he will go at it for literally hours on end. This was the case with learning to go downstairs backwards. He mastered going upstairs in no time, clambering from step to step like a crazy crab. Yet, as with mountain climbing, coming down is the hardest and most dangerous part. Magnus applied himself to this task admirably and after a week or so of patient training and dedicated effort on his behalf, he nailed it.

Stair champ

Stair champ

As with adult learning, often the best results come after one has gone away and slept on the problem. This was certainly the case with the stairs. One morning after we got him up, he crawled out into the corridor and, first thing, without being shown, just turned around and went down the stairs backwards. Go synapses! For several weeks after that we just walked up and down the stairs, following Magnus while he improved his climbing techniques, poised like wicket keepers to catch him if he slipped and fell.

These achievements all mark great cognitive leaps; seemingly simple ideas such as that things have a place, that things can be pushed two ways, that some things bounce and some don’t – these are pretty radical concepts, especially when your operating system doesn’t come pre-packaged with software and has to write itself. To extend the analogy, Magnus is like an automated unit that crawls around hoovering up data, then processing it into functional software that enables him to perform basic tasks.

I can crawl!

I can crawl!

Another thought that has come to mind in observing Magnus is how, at this stage of life, without any understanding of the trappings of human culture or its meaning and purpose, the developed world in which he is growing up is just another environment. It might be very different to the forests, savannahs and shores of his ancestors, yet, without language, and without any sense of the origin of things, the world must, to him, bear no distinction between the natural and the manufactured. In this sense, his way of interacting with his environment is probably no different from that of Homo Sapiens children of a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. He crawls around, puts things in his mouth, babbles nonsense, picks things up, examines them, throws them, tries to eat them a second time, and then moves on to the next thing. I don’t doubt that this is precisely what human babies have done since our species first assumed its present form. We’ve hardly evolved since then at all – just a few tweaks like lactose tolerance – instead, our culture has evolved and we have shaped our environments.

What's this? Fruit?

What’s this? Fruit?

This morning I was letting Magnus wander about in the front yard, playing with the neighbours’ cat, Oliver. Magnus pulled the gate open – he’s nailed that – and crawled out onto the pavement. Oliver followed, and this cute little pair of quadrupeds drifted about, followed by me, an adult ape. They seemed somehow an appropriate pairing; roughly the same height when on all fours, yet there was no doubt which one of them understood his environment more intimately – the cat. Oliver, who has lived with a human baby already, is very patient with Magnus and follows him around like a world-weary feline chaperon. It seems almost unfair that one day soon Magnus’ intellect will far outstrip his, that he will eventually wield so much more control over his environment than a cat could ever hope to do. For now, however, the cat definitely has the edge on the ape. A strange inversion of what is, let’s face it, the perfectly natural order of things.

Varkala Beach, Kerala, December 24, 2012

Varkala Beach, Kerala, December 24, 2012

This choice is mostly on account of its seasonal spirit – the shot was taken on the morning of Christmas Eve in Varkala, Kerala, India in 2012. That morning the beach was full of people, promenading on the sand, enjoying the sea air, and partaking in various religious rites. A local priest had set up a small shrine on the beach, the altar built atop a mound of sand, and some smallish painted idols had been placed nearby. Kerala has a large Christian community, courtesy of Portuguese colonialism, and it was interesting to see how Christmas celebrations were blended with more traditional practises. Some locals made offerings of rice and flowers to the sea, wading in knee-deep, though very few, apart from the local canoe fishermen, went further into the water.

The early crowd can be seen in the background; the stretch of beach on which the man runs was tidally cut off by a cluster of rocks, out of shot, and was near deserted. At 0700 AM, it was already warm and the humid haze can be seen building in the greyish sky. The water was a bath-like 24-25 degrees and remained shallow for almost a hundred metres out to sea.

This young man seemed a rare sight – apart from playing cricket, or the all too common back-breaking physical labour, it isn’t that common to see Indian people exercising in public. He had a real spring in his step and seemed quite delighted with his morning run. Whether he was a local or one of the many tourists who had come to spend Christmas at the sea, I’m not sure, but he certainly offered a celebratory spirit on that jetlagged first morning in India.


Stunning Pluto, colour enhanced to highlight different terrain and composition.

Like so many people I’ve been completely gripped by the New Horizons mission to Pluto – a gift to humanity that, for the moment, keeps on giving. The exploration of the Pluto system completes the initial reconnaissance of our classical solar system, for we have now visited all the planets (putting aside disputes about Pluto’s status) with probes. Though this process really began in 1961 with the Soviet Venera 1 mission to Venus, the probe lost contact before it made its flyby and thus the first successful visit to another planet came the following year, with Nasa’s Mariner 2, which also went to Venus. From that time forward, a quite staggering number of probes have been sent to explore our  immediate neighbourhood.

Questions are frequently raised about the cost and purpose of space exploration, with a variety of arguments put forward that it is a waste of money. Yet, when we consider the returns from investment in space, scientifically, philosophically and economically, it is clear that such ventures are not only vital to understanding our place in the universe, but also offer many positive outcomes and benefits.

Exploration of the solar system not only fills people with a sense of wonder and excitement, it also reminds us just how unique our own planet is and how utterly inhospitable the rest of the planets are – for Homo Sapiens. Ideally this should inspire us to protect our planet – just as the first photographs of the Earth from space were a huge inspiration to green and global peace movements back in the 1960s. Seen from space, it is completely clear that the Earth is one planet we all must share, not some disparate mosaic of places so different that conflict between us must be inevitable.

The famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the solar system, in which our home is a mere one pixel against the immensity of space, showed us once again what a tiny oasis we live on. One pixel, that’s all we have, and we really need to stop trashing the joint.


Pale Blue Dot – Earth captured by Voyager I – lower middle right of frame

The exploration of space may be carried out by national space agencies, and their flag waving may seem parochial, but that is just a reflection of the immense pride in this huge and noble achievement. Space exploration is for everyone – for all humankind. As the International Space Station has shown, when it comes to space, the scientists and astronauts of different nations cooperate with a warmth and eagerness that is admirable, because they know that their work goes far beyond petty nationalisms. Obviously the space program was born of a kind of international competition, but even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia were working together in space to their mutual benefit, and, arguably, for all our benefits. When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon in 1969, the whole world rejoiced. This was not merely an American achievement, it was arguably the most colossal achievement of the human race’s entire history. A life-form descended from an ape had somehow managed to leave its home-world and travel to another world. Wow.

Solar system

Where we live

Our exploration of our solar system and the vastness of space beyond has not only allowed us to throw off mistaken ideas about the place of the Earth in the solar system, it has taught us our address in the universe. We are, at present, mapping the entire sky in an attempt to put together a map of the visible universe.  We now know precisely where we are in the Milky Way Galaxy and where our galaxy lies in relation to other galaxies in our local group. We now know that at the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole – Sagittarius A*, around which our unremarkable but life-giving star orbits, along with anything between 100 and 400 billion other stars.


Sagittarius A-Star

We know that our own galaxy is but one galaxy among billions of other galaxies whirling, and it seems, accelerating through space. We know that the universe is not some permanent, static thing, but something that was born and has the potential to die, and is, indeed, expanding. We now know the age of the universe (c. 13.82 billion years); we know the age of the sun (c.4.57 billion years) and the planets (Earth, c. 4.54 billion years). Previously our ignorance of these things meant that we were dominated by superstition, with all the calamities and oppression that religion has brought to humanity throughout its long history. I accept that religion has played an important role in the origins of organised human society, yet its rigid, inflexible and wrong-headed ideas which justify intolerance, autocracy, homophobia, misogyny and genocide have no place in the modern world. Understanding the origins of the universe and of our own sun and planets, understanding how the planets and stars move in space and understanding how all this can be attributed purely to the laws of physics is helping us to throw off the shackles of these restrictive and punitive beliefs. Further exploration can only push superstitions about our origins and those of the Earth itself to the margins, and, in the context of the recent barbarism in the name of religion and widespread ignorance that denies the reality of climate change, this can’t happen soon enough.

By no means has all of this been done through space-based probes, but exploration of the universe began, of course, with the human eye and telescopes. In recent decades, however, the ability to deploy telescopes to space has greatly improved our knowledge and vision of the universe. Indeed, since the 1970s, more than eighty probes have been sent into Earth’s orbit and beyond measuring our planet, the solar system, galaxy and wider universe in gamma rays, x-rays, visible and infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.


Square Kilometre Array – Artist’s impression

The James Webb Space Telescope

The new telescopes being developed for deployment on both Earth and in space, the Square Kilometre Array, the James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the “imaginatively” named Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope to name a few, will allow us, for example, to find planets in neighbouring star systems with an accuracy of which we have only dreamed. This is key information not just for refining our understanding our origins and how unique or typical our planet and planetary system is in space, but also for developing maps of our neighbourhood which may one day be necessary should we ever need to look beyond our solar system for a new home, or indeed, be driven to colonise the other planets in our solar system.

Potentially habitable exoplanets

We can only guess what they look like, but we know they are there

Such distant outcomes seem almost pointlessly farfetched, yet the knowledge and wisdom we gain from this – the insights into questions as fundamental as the prevalence of life in the universe, whether or not we are alone, and whether or not we can one day expand our horizons, come at such a relatively cheap price that it would be foolish not to gain this knowledge. Humans have, after all, always looked beyond the horizon. It’s how we colonised our own world in the first place.

Such high minded motivations aside, there are also huge economic and environmental benefits which derive from space exploration and the space program. Consider all the technological spin-offs that have come from the space industry in the past – it’s a very long list, but here are a few highlights – solar cells, chemical detection devices, scratch resistant plastic, anti-icing systems for aircraft, light-emitting diodes, fire-fighting equipment, water purification, cordless tools, powdered lubricants, air-pollution extraction, freeze-drying, improved heart pumps, robotic artificial limbs, invisible braces, improved insulation materials… Many other technologies which already existed have been refined and improved by scientists working on space programs. Take for example the chemical detection devices used to sniff out gases on other worlds or deep space – these “artificial noses” have a huge range of actual and potential applications on Earth.

Our knowledge of our own planet, particularly with regard to our understanding of the climate, atmosphere, and surface and ocean temperatures has expanded enormously thanks to an ever-growing list of Earth-observation satellites. Such programs as the ESA’s Copernicus Program, which has already launched two of six planned satellites to observe weather, vegetation, soil and water cover, inland waterways and coastal areas, atmospheric temperatures, will allow us to foresee and predict changes on our own planet and help us to act accordingly. Arguably, such satellites might be considered more vital and practical than those visiting other parts of the solar system, yet even these programs attract similar questions about the value of the investment.


Serving society indeed. Hear hear!

Rather than raising questions about spending money on science such as this, people should really turn their attention to the million and one other things humanity wastes its money on and question those priorities first. Consider, for example, the billions of dollars given in subsidies to the fossil fuel industries; the tax breaks dolled out to the hugely wealthy and to religious institutions, the opulent waste of our overconsumption, the recent bail-out of banks and the horrifically expensive and destructive wars we fight. Investing just a fraction of this waste in cutting-edge research would advance humanity’s interests enormously and move us into a cleaner, greener future.

As someone who believes in a strong state system where wealth is taxed sufficiently to provide high quality services to the entire population and fund intellectual, artistic and humanitarian endeavours, it goes without saying that the first priority of a government should be bread and butter portfolios such as health and education. Yet, with adequate taxation there should be plenty of money to fund space exploration and space-based research, along with all other viable fields of enquiry. Space exploration is, at the end of the day, not that expensive. The Curiosity rover is a ground-breaking, prestige mission that has put a plutonium-powered, multi-functioning, mobile robotic laboratory on Mars which could potentially continue to explore the red planet for the next fifteen years – and it cost only 2.5 billion dollars. As a lump sum, this may seem a lot of money, but then, consider the fact that stealth bombers cost two billion dollars each and the US has, to our knowledge, built 21 of them. Unlike the Curiosity rover, they are not helping us to consider fundamental questions such as whether or not life may have first originated on Mars.


Curiosity rover selfie

It must be said that investment in military technological development has also produced a long range of admirably useful and important spin-off technologies. Yet such research could just as easily be conducted with peaceful, civilian purposes as its primary goal, and the cost of military hardware is outrageous to the point of scandalous, when we consider the destructive application of these machines.

Not only does such research benefit us, it makes a net profit. At present, defence spending in the US accounts for 24.5% of total spending, whereas NASA’s budget equates to 0.5%. Adjusted for inflation, the Apollo program cost one twentieth of the 2.4 trillion dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Apollo program employed roughly 409,000 people, many of whom gained ground-breaking experience in the development of new skills and technologies, the two wars led to the deaths of more than 150,000 people and practically bankrupted the United States. It may not be an equitable comparison, but it gives a pretty clear sense of where money might be better spent. And consider this – because of the high-end, high-value tech spin-offs that come from NASA and associates, it is estimated that for every $1 invested, between $7 and $14 are generated, which is a pretty neat profit however you look at it.


Many start-up companies are now working towards developing asteroid mining industries. As difficult as the task might prove to be, the benefits could be incalculable. Asteroids in our neighbourhood contain enormous, untapped deposits of rare and important minerals of which we have but a finite amount on our own planet. Potentially, these minerals can be extracted in space and transported to Earth without destroying our own vital ecosystems. If the industry ever manages to get off the ground, we could one day see an end to mining on Earth and instead gain all our mineral needs from space. What a relief this would be for our fragile environment. Knowing what is out there in the first place allows us to imagine such alternatives.

These are just some of the practical benefits of space exploration, put in harder, economic terms. Yet in truth, the real benefits we gain from this exercise go far beyond anything as tawdry as money. Space exploration is a source of great wonder and inspiration and it is a important way for us to contextualise ourselves and our existence, in the vastly wider and utterly indifferent cosmos. The Cassini probe has been studying and photographing Saturn and its moons since 2004, and has provided us with some of the most breath-taking images of the solar system’s beauty – the tiger stripes of Enceladus, the hydrocarbon lakes on the surface of Titan, the strange blue hexagon at Saturn’s north pole. Space exploration offers immense pleasure through the discovery of beautiful things.


Beautiful Enceladus could harbour life in its tidally-heated subsurface ocean.

Saturn’s Blue Hexagon was well worth a look


Hydrocarbon lakes seen in a rare glimpse through the haze of Titan.


Little Rhea before the immensity of Saturn and its rings in profile

No one expected Pluto to look as beautiful as it does. Even the most enthusiastic planetary scientists would have thought you were smoking crack if you told them they’d find tall mountains of water ice and flowing glaciers of frozen gases on a geologically active world, or a hazy, blue nitrogen sky. The sheer beauty of this distant world has made our lives richer and we can only see these images because we made the effort to go there. I say to anyone who doubts whether or not the small price paid for this mission was worth it to take a really good look at the picture below, in high resolution, on a very wide screen. Science fiction, eat your heart out.


Pluto, a fantasy wonderland of gloriously active geology.


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