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Categories: Ancient, Modern


A black and white photo of Pluto silhouetted against the emptiness of the outer solar system
The last photo broadcast by New Horizons as it approached Pluto and concentrated all its resources on collecting data rather than transmitting it. Photo by NASA/APL/SwRI http://www.nasa.gov/feature/new-horizons-spacecraft-displays-pluto-s-big-heart-0/

About 2550 years ago, the latest king of Babylon deposited a cylinder in the foundations of a building which proclaimed to the Babylonian literati that he was just the kind of king that all the best Babylonian literature said a king should be. Building and renovating monuments was one of the basic responsibilities of a Babylonian king, and Cyrus wished to be accepted by his new subjects. Cyrus expected that every few centuries workers in the service of another king would dig up his cylinder, read it, and deposit it again with appropriate honours. In fact, Cyrus assures his audience that he has done just that as he restored walls and temples:

(43) ši-ti-ir (Erasure) šu-mu ša2 {m}AN.ŠAR2-DU3-IBILA LUGAL a-lik mah-ri-[-ia ša2 quer-ba-šu ap-pa-a]l-sa(!) (44) […] (45) [… a-na d]a-ri2-a-ti3

“A cuneiform text in the name of Assurbanipal, a king who went before me, which appeared within it [… to] immortality.” (Cyrus Cylinder ed. Schaudig tr. Manning)

Until recently, only one example of this cylinder was known, and that was excavated from the foundations of that building (exactly where has since been lost as excavations in 1880-1881 were not documented to modern standards). But in December 2009 and January 2010, W.G. Lambert and Irving Finkel identified two fragments of a transcription of the cylinder onto a tablet which was signed by one Qishti-Marduk son of Marduk or Iqish-Marduk, son of X. While the cylinder was buried in the earth, its message could circulate in copies, and perhaps in speech as well.

More recently, NASA launched a probe to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. That probe just survived its closest approach to Pluto and is continuing towards interstellar space at 1/2,000 the speed of light. I was delighted to read that this probe bears an inscription too:

In memory of the first American to discover a planet in our solar system, the piano-sized New Horizons spacecraft carries a small aluminum canister containing some of Tombaugh’s cremated remains, donated by his family. These remains will fly past Pluto with New Horizons on July 14, 2015, and then on past Kuiper Belt objects in the succeeding years. New Horizons will eventually escape our solar system altogether and enter interstellar space. As such, Tombaugh’s remains have become the first to be launched to the stars.

The memorial canister, about two inches wide and half-an-inch tall, is attached to the inside, upper deck of the spacecraft. It also includes an inscription penned by Stern:

Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s “third zone.” Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).

John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Press release, 3 February 2006 link

A practically-minded materialist might observe that nobody will ever be able to read that inscription again. If New Horizons ever passes through another solar system, it will not be for tens of thousands of years. Given our understanding of physics, the chance that that system will contain anyone capable of retrieving something travelling at 50,000 km/hr let alone of deciphering a short text in 20th century English, is not very high. The universe is vast and empty and even our mightiest works are slow and small. But the point was not for somebody to read that inscription, and if that copy is beyond human reach, people can still know what it says. We still remember the words of Qishti-Marduk and Cyrus, and maybe in a few thousand years we will remember Clyde Tombaugh too.

Further Reading: John Curtis ed., The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning for the Middle East (The British Museum: London, 2013) (Bookfinder link). Jona Lendering et al., The Cyrus Cylinder link.

Edit 2023-12-28: block editor

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