This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Sunday, 25 November 2012

On the Pioneer Plaques

Let’s take a trip through space, far, far away.
Somewhere far from here, and getting further every second, two small spacecraft called Pioneer 10 and 11 are speeding further away from us. Driving through the gulf of space, bathed in hard X rays and random stellar radio waves, these two craft are the first objects created by this species to leave the solar system.
These two spacecraft also carry two identical gold anodised aluminiumplaques, one of which you can see in the illustration, which are pretty interesting in a lot of ways.
These plaques, of course, are there for the benefit of any future alien species that may someday intercept these craft; a most unlikely event because of the immensity of space and the smallness of the craft themselves, but that’s beside the point.
Anyone here who’s read the awful 1950s-era pulp science fiction by the likes of Michael Shaara will remember those dire warnings about interstellar wars and how alien species which encountered each other’s craft would instantly annihilate each other to protect the secret of the location of their home planets. The idea of the alien as predator-oppressor-imperialist is very much alive, even now. Remember that awful movie called Independence Day?
Yet, where science and not prejudice is concerned, we have these perfectly sane scientists sending out a plaque to an alien race with detailed instructions on how to locate Earth in the cosmos. It’s either suicidal or rational, and I know which I think it is.
The other extremely interesting thing is less edifying. Take a good look at the second picture; at the close up of the figures of the naked man and woman on the plaque. What strikes you at once? Well, apart from the fact that the couple are so obviously white; but that’s not really significant because I suppose they had to make them something and the early seventies imagination probably didn’t extend to multiethnic physiognomies. What else? Well:
The man is holding up a hand in greeting, and the woman is just standing there, looking away slightly. I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of sexist. The man is the forward one; the woman, standing metaphorically in his shadow, doesn’t even look the alien in the face.
This might be a bit of an “extreme” explanation. I might be over-reacting, but I don’t think I am, because of the other thing.
Look at the genitals. The man’s are intact, completely visible; but what do we see between the woman’s legs? Nothing. Just a smooth mound tapering off to a point where her thighs meet.
Was this a simple oversight, then? Not quite.
Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say over this:
the original design included a short line indicating the woman’s vulva. It was erased as condition for approval by John Naugle, former head of NASA's Office of Space Science and the agency's former chief scientist.
So, a line indicating the woman’s external genitals, meant to be seen only by hypothetical alien creatures millennia hence, was erased because some conservative idiot didn’t think it appropriate, or because he thought other conservative idiots wouldn’t think it appropriate.
How much more sexist than that can you get?

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