Live free, die free

 

 

A new feature was added to Facebook this week- the ‘legacy contact’. For the first time, the site will allow users to designate someone to formally manage your profile after you die- including a pinned post with key information.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 1.12.07 PM

 

In some sense, this is a new sort of civil right- we have traditionally had rights on how we live, but not how we die. Aid in dying has suddenly gained more widespread acceptance, including a potentially key legislative debate in California, after always being a fringe social movement. From legal changes to more informal recognition by institutions like Facebook, society’s sense of freedom is changing. The 20th century was full of landmark changes in the concept of rights and what a free society should look like. And even though the 21st has had serious conflicts over civil liberties, the debate continues to expand.

 

Learning Opportunity: teaching death using technology

Opportunity takes a shadow portrait, March 27, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Recently the Opportunity rover on Mars made the news- after more than a decade on the surface, it has developed serious memory problems. As a project engineer said:

“The problems started off fairly benign, but now they’ve become more serious — much like an illness, the symptoms were mild, but now with the progression of time things have become more serious,”

We use spacecraft like Opportunity, Voyagers 1 and 2, and newer projects like Curiosity to teach kids about space, geology, and physics. Even though they are machines, they can teach us about one of the most important human journeys- death.

Space missions have a life expectancy. Probes we send to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Solar System talk to us. Then over time their components fail, their signal grows weaker, and eventually we lose them. Voyager 2 was launched 13 years before I was born, and is still transmitting faintly from billions of miles away. Opportunity still roams, but its sister rover Spirit got stuck and went offline a few years ago. It lost a sibling, but soldiers on.

Death is a scary idea to everyone, and it’s difficult to bring the subject to youth. But what Opportunity is going through is an impersonal way to talk about a process that will affect their grandparents, parents, and eventually themselves. The probes have less energy. Their joints and arms don’t work the same as they used to. Their memory is spotty and they require more medical attention than before.

And like humans, these machines have life experience and leave a legacy. Opportunity has traveled almost 26 miles in the past decade, making several groundbreaking discoveries about the surface of Mars and its history. When it one day powers down, we will have a familiar debate about what to do with its body- will it stay there for eternity, or will we one day put it in a museum? How can we honor what has passed?

There is wisdom to be gained with the fact that even artificial things have a life cycle, and that machines and humans can have a great deal in common with their journeys. One day, like Voyager, I will stop talking. And how will the world remember me?

The pine-box forest

Thanks to human apathy
green-gray vines
grow with impunity

here lies the pine-box forest
each specimen assembled from
copses, large and small,
their origins many
their final place the same

here lies the pine-box forest
contained within –
forlorn, ecstatic
rageful, placid
pleasure, pain,
that feeling, as if you
flew above the world
soaring, effortless
the earth itself within reach

here lies the pine-box forest
where we find one rare piece
of common ground