What exactly is the thinking that decides that we now want to send a probe out into the solar system to discover if there really is some "exobiology". Will finding our place in a bigger scheme of things make us feel less toxic? Are we likely to understand the fragilities of our own situation and therefore reinforce them? Will the presence or absence of life in outer space make us treat the forms of otherness, whether human or microbiological, with greater respect, understanding and concern?
We used to think of God as being beyond, somehow out-there. Now, as we await news of the fate of Beagle 2, we get excited about the possible fossils of micro-organisms from asteroids. This is a paradigm shift in our conception of belonging: from Darwin's evolutionary model to something much stranger. We need a horizon to dream of what lies beyond it. We needed the survival of the fittest to describe a relationship between life-forms. At a time of massive human conflict, what would be the ethical and philosophical effect of discovering that Earth does not support the sole chain of life in the universe?
What inspired the Hale-Bopp, Heaven's Gate cult to take their own lives was a belief that they would be teleported to another planet: a fin-de-siècle wish to begin a new era. This is exactly what the Beagle 2 was trying to do in a rational and inclusive way.
I have become fond of the engaging face of Professor Pillinger, grinning with delight as he opens the lid of the space probe, which looks a bit like a CD player, only 10 times bigger and containing several discs - the solar panels necessary for the probe to recharge its batteries so it can transmit the results of a series of experiments that will indicate whether or not there once was, or still is, life on Mars. He looks like a man inspired, and he is.
The story of the development of the Beagle 2 project is in many ways so British, in the tradition of Bletchley Park, Morse and the R101 dirigibles. Dreams hatched and excitement shared in the pub are carried forth by the indomitable spirit of an impassioned instigator. Hitch a ride on the European Space Agency's Mars Express and see if you can cram a laboratory's worth of instruments into a 33.2kg lander.
What makes this project such a fascinating and worthy successor to Hubble (which told us in images about the beginning of things)? Now, when so much of the western world's resources seems to be being hijacked by a business plan in the form of war-for-profit that has the dishonesty to masquerade as a form of moral rearmament, this project, conceived in a democratic manner, has embraced many different people from many disciplines. This is OUR deep space probe, conceived as a hike into outer space to find what forms of life there may be that share this mind-boggling universe. There is no business here - no aspiration for financial profit. Beagle 2 has tested our boundaries in a spirit of adventure. The pooling of knowledge and expertise in an attempt to gain knowledge and expertise. Art and science really do cohere.
What Professor Pillinger has done, irrespective of whether his craft signals back to us or not, is to expand our imaginative boundaries and make us ask questions of ourselves and the physical world that we might not otherwise ask. When he trolleyed the model around his home town it was a chance for a first-hand connection to be made from a parish to the outer boundaries of our world. I do not think it has been done quite like this before.
Why do we need to find life on other planets? Because we need to expand our relativities. The Christian message is one that brings hope only to Christians - a saviour only for those who believe. This is a diminishing world written in the words that define a chosen people. What the professor is offering is an ever more inclusive vision of life. He wants to bring art and science together and offer us the possibility that human life will be recontextualised in a radical revision of being.
Even with no signal, no contact, the map of what is possible has changed.
Antony Gormley's next sculpture show - 'Mass and Empathy' - opens in Lisbon in February
- More about: