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April 20, 2012

Johan Harstad on the Universe


Johan Harstad is the Norwegian author of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, a Kirkus Best Fiction of 2011 book, Hässelby, and DARLAH: 172 Hours on the Moon, for which he won the 2008 Brage prize in the children's literature category. He has been described as "one of the most important [Scandinavian] authors to emerge in the early years of this century" and "an author of exceptional stylistic assurance." Here, he discusses his innermost thoughts about the universe.


I was laying on my back out on the porch of a cabin in the woods one summer, the sun had gone down and since there were no lights coming from the cabin, no streetlights or any other sources of illumination nearby, I could see a massive amount of stars in the clear sky that night.

I was overwhelmed. While other people were lying on their back in other parts of the world, falling in love with what they saw, I was just freaked out.

The same day I had stumbled across information about the 6EQUJ5-signal (which you will learn more about when you read my novel), and all I could think of was the scale of the Universe.

It’s unbelievably big.

It could also very well be equally unbelievably dangerous.

Forget all the maps you’ve seen of the planets in our solar system beautifully lined up; the scale is not right at all. It’s only a visualization to make you feel less alone. We are, in fact, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Imagine this: A bacteria, a single bacteria, resting on a grain of sand three feet deep in a random sand dune in a random place in the middle of the Saharan desert.

That’s us. The whole world.

Now imagine that someone destroyed that single bacteria.

Either by accident, or by decision.

Would you care? Would you miss it? Grieve for it? Would you even notice that it was gone?

I was laying on the porch of that cabin, feeling more deserted than Robinson Crusoe ever, ever, ever came close to.

Then, in a futile attempt at comforting myself, I started looking at it the other way.

What if this small spot of space we call Earth is important? What if it is too important to be left alone? Would that be any better? The only planet with perfect conditions for life in billions and billions of miles in every direction.

We may be sticking out like a sore thumb.

We may be the perfect target. A sitting duck.

If so, maybe it wasn’t really a brilliant idea to send out our two space probes, Voyager 1 and 2 in the late seventies, complete with written directions to make it easy to locate us.

In a year or two Voyager 1 will leave the heliopause and our solar system, entering interstellar space as the first man made object, on its eternal journey into the unknown, traveling at 10.72 miles per second. If someone, or something not from Earth sent out the 6EQUJ5 signal, chances are that Voyager 1 will eventually … be found.

It might not be something to wish for. At least that has been the case for most indigenous people who received ‘visitors’ from more advanced cultures. That is what Stephen Hawking, world known theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Cambridge University thinks, fearing interstellar nomads.

One more thing: About 20 light years from Earth there might be a planet very, very similar to Earth, called Gliese 581 G. You can always hope that this will keep whoever’s out there busy for a while, if they happen to find it first. Or Gliese 581 G could be the thing to fear, I don’t know.

This is why I’ve stopped laying on the porch of this cabin, looking up to the sky during summer nights.  Scared of what might reveal itself one day, approaching us.

When I went to school, I didn’t pay particular attention to either physics or mathematics. All this has changed now. Not because I’m constantly afraid of aliens or even believe in them per se, at least not in the sense of being green men from Mars Attacks!, but because the sheer size of it both fascinates me and scares the sh*t out of me.

One could argue that a book like 172 HOURS ON THE MOON is just a sci-fi horror novel written as entertainment. And you can decide for yourself how troubling you find it that a possibly disturbing amount of facts in it have been confirmed.

But you could also argue, as I do, that the novel deals with our two most basic fears:

The fear of being abandoned. And the fear of being discovered.

And maybe, just maybe, also this third one:

For different reasons much of the novel was written in the middle of the night, from 11pm to 5am. I would sit by my desk, writing, listening to, amongst other things, Penderecki (try listening to “The Dream of Jacob” at 3 in the morning and see how you feel…) and from time to time I would look up and see my own reflection in the window in front of me, grinning back. It startled me every time. I looked tired, scared. I looked like a different version of myself. And it made me think that maybe we should fear ourselves most of all, because we may be the most dangerous thing that has ever happened to Earth.

And so you should ask yourself: Would you really want to meet yourself in a dark alley in a deserted part of the city?