“Sometimes, when I grab a coffee cup from my cabinet, I will pick one that’s in the back and never gets used because I think the cup feels depressed that it isn’t fulfilling it’s mission of holding coffee.”
“I used to work at a toy store and if anyone ever bought a stuffed animal I would leave its head sticking out of the bag.. so it could breathe.”
A friend once told me, “I feel bad for inanimate objects, all the time.” I confessed to her that I did too. I have an old heavily scratched water bottle I am unable to discard. Even though I have replaced it with a newer one, it lies at the back of a kitchen cupboard.
Why is this? Why do some of us sometimes sense a pang of guilt while throwing a pair of worn-out shoes in the garbage bin or neglecting to wear an old shirt with a frayed collar that’s been with us a long time? We know these things do not feel joy or loneliness and yet, every now and then our emotions inform us otherwise. Perhaps this is the result of all those Disney films featuring a motherly teapot or brave little toaster.
History however suggests this behavior predates any cartoon depiction of household items with people-like personalities. From the worship of idols to an animistic worldview, various cultures from around the world have long believed that material objects either contain spirits or possess some kind of special connection to us.
Take Galileo for example. The spacecraft “Galileo”, that is……
Galileo had been aptly named. Carried into space by the shuttle Atlantis, in 1989, Galileo performed a finely choreographed series of loops – one around Venus and two around the earth – maneuvers that in Nasa parlance are known as ‘Gravity Assist’. Gravity Assist is like a slingshot, meant to increase velocity – necessary to enable the two and a half ton, schoolbus-sized spacecraft to reach its goal – Jupiter.
Six years later, Galileo arrived over Jupiter and fired it’s thrusters to slow it down and it parked itself into an orbit half a million miles above the stratospheric storm clouds of the gas giant. There had been life threatening glitches on the way but this artificially intelligent robot had listened to the commands from it’s rapidly receding masters and it had come through unscathed.
Like the astronomer whose illustrious name it bore, Galileo scored many firsts. The first flyby of the irregularly shaped asteroid named ‘243Ida’ and the discovery that it had it’s own moon. Gravity-Assist flybys of the Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The discovery of liquid water bubbling and frothing under the icy crust of the Jovian moon, Europa and the realization that Europa might harbor life in some form. (Arthur C Clarke had seen water under Europa two decades prior in his “2001 – A space odyssey” but that’s another story.)
Galileo sent back grotesquely dramatic video of active volcanoes on another Jovian moon, Io, erupting and ejecting plumes of basalt and sulfur hundreds of miles into space, the pictures having much greater resolution than the ones that Voyagers I and II had sent back more than a decade earlier. Then came the unbelievable real time video of the comet Shoemaker-Levy, slamming into Jupiter’s 90% hydrogen atmosphere and breaking up into multiple fireballs, leaving huge vortex-like holes in Jupiter’s clouds.
And many more. Galileo was designed to last 8-10 years and the scientists at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would have been satisfied if it had conked out by 1997, the year that the mission was officially scheduled to end.
But Galileo was just getting warmed up. July, 1995, right after it had injected itself into Jupiter orbit, Galileo released a probe, which plunged into Jupiter’s thick atmosphere and by the time it’s parachute had slowed it down, it had transmitted to Galileo 58 minutes of invaluable data on why Jupiter is what it is, for onward transmission to earth, before succumbing to the punishing heat and atmospheric pressure.
By early 2003, Galileo itself had completed all its mission goals (and some) and now it was time to put it down. On September 21, 2003, it was commanded to fire a ‘de-orbiting burn’ and once again it faithfully obeyed. The de-orbit burn caused it to slow down to the point where centripetal force overcame centrifugal force, drawing it inward, into Jupiter. It hit the upper atmosphere at 174000 mph and disappeared into the thick soup forever. 26 years after construction had first begun, the talkative robot finally fell silent. The Galileo-Jovian Project was over.
Immediately following Galileo’s demise, a funny thing happened. Let me back up a bit.
The engineers and scientists dedicated to the mission had been young, in their late twenties and thirties, when Galileo had been first conceived and started being built. Trials and tribulations, marriages, breakups, deaths, disease – they had gone through it all, buoyed by the intensity of their commitment to Galileo’s success. They had cheered at each milestone – delirious with awe at the Shoemaker-Levy spectacle, stunned at the evidence of liquid water sloshing around underneath Europa’s icy crust, laughing hysterically at the oddity of watching a piddly asteroid with it’s own moon and the many other firsts that Galileo had achieved.
Now here they were, three decades later, in their middle age, 365 million miles from their ‘baby’. And they were watching it die. Scientists and engineers – from a dozen nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, men and women – stood up from their consoles and hugged each other, sobbing openly, overcome by a sense of loss that comes with bidding farewell to a loved one, as Galileo – for one last time, faithfully on command – plunged into Jupiter.
Ever since we have existed, we humans have always attempted to form attachments toward everyday objects that have become a part of our lives, in part because we are loving creatures and affection is in our nature. Love is a fixed part of our species needs. When we are small, it is the teddy bear or the security blanket we couldn’t live without. Remember Linus, in ‘Peanuts’, clinging on to his blanket and sucking his thumb?
As we grow, we fall in love with all sorts of objects in our daily lives. In my case, it’s the old corduroy jacket that always seems to lift my spirits the moment I slip it on. Or my first car in Canada, a 1998 Corolla that had to be constantly coaxed into taking me where I wanted to go, but still came through when desperately needed – like in a snow storm on Highway 20 in the middle of the night. The car was so dear to me that I had even given it a name – Bertha and a gender, female.
Or even the house I grew up in. I remember making a trip to Durgapur, while on a visit to India in 2010, just to see with my own eyes the two-storeyed bungalow that we had lived in, five decades prior – 1964 onward – when I was 10. Besides being a place filled with love, events that had seemed momentous then had occurred there, like the gradual break-up of my parents’ marriage and me being sent to live with relatives first and later on to boarding school, when life with my relatives became unbearable.
As I leaned against the wall of the bedroom that my two brothers and I had slept in, I stared down at the grassy patch outside and I felt I could hear my Ma calling from the kitchen window…”Ei Jobbu, anek hoyeche, ebar bhetore choley aye. Kal school khulche je, boi pottor dekhe ne shob ache ki na” (Jobbu, that’s enough of playing, now come on inside and go over your school bag and see if you have everything. School starts tomorrow).
It was still there but the bungalow now had a run-down look. The woman who let me in was very understanding. After a while, as I wandered from room to room, touching the windows, the walls, while memories sprang up like asparagus on steroids and I couldn’t hold back the tears. The window sill over which I had lobbed Ma’s treasured Ganesha out in rage because I was caught bullying the neighbor’s daughter and given a spanking – that window sill appeared not to have changed one bit, though it had been way taller than me and I could barely see over it then. Later on, Ma told me she would never have guessed where the marble idol had landed (in the bushes outside), had it not been for the Krishna figurine teetering on the ledge of the window. It appears I had taken out my anger on multiple gods. (The fact that I have grown into a well-adjusted adult proves that Hindu gods don’t hold grudges.)
My emotions that day in 2010 were so real that the woman who had let me in hugged me and began crying herself.
For the men and women who had nurtured Galileo, seeing it plummet into Jupiter, the attachment toward a robotic spacecraft must have felt like something similar. For three decades, Galileo had been a part of their daily lives.
Without doubt, inanimate objects are just that – inanimate. Or are they? After all, we haven’t yet fully grasped what reality really is, have we?