Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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'Signs' is okay, but for wonders contemplate the interstellar Voyager Mission, still going after 25 years
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   08/23/2002)

Today's column is for nerds, space cadets and Trekkies. The rest of you have to leave. Go on now. Scat. Out the door.

O.K. then stick around, but don't interrupt. This is about things they never taught you in science class. No wonder this country lags behind when it comes to education. Take the so-called science in that Mel Gibson film, "Signs," which has been packing them in the last few weeks.

What a bunch of groundhog-wash! Only groundhogs--those who never experienced any real curiosity about the outer universe--could sit through that without rolling their eyes at the absurdity. It would take someone who never cared about Apollo 8, Carl Sagan or "2001: A Space Odyssey" to really enjoy "Signs." (If you have to ask what was so special about Apollo 8, then I can't help you. Go on now, scat.)

Get this. These aliens come from many light years away, with all that that implies about intelligence, sophistication and technology. (O.K., for you there in the back, no manmade object has yet traveled even one one-hundredth the distance of a light year, despite all our rockets and other gizmos). Anyway, in "Signs" these aliens convene a fleet of starships based on technology so advanced we can't even conceive of it, complete with cloaking devices that make them invisible in the skies of earth. They send dozens, if not hundreds of these amazing machines down here loaded with aliens intent on harvesting human beings, apparently for food, and guess what?.

They forget to bring a hammer to knock our doors down. They also forget to bring raincoats, not to mention spacesuits. And apparently they had no idea this big blue planet had water on it.

O.K., the suspense is cool, the message neatly squared away, the acting is superior, those kids are cute as ducklings at Easter, but come on, what's with all the crop circles? I did enjoy seeing them enlarged up there on the screen--I'm rather a fan of crop-circle art--but they've been debunked folks. College kids with boards and ropes are making them.

At one point in the movie, a character asks breathlessly, something like, "What kind of machine could knock down all these cornstalks, all at the same angle?" To which, someone in the audience shouted out, "Lawn mower." It was priceless.

O.K., my kids loved the film and you'll likely enjoy it if you go, just be prepared to have your intelligence insulted.

To have it inspired, turn to real life and a subject that's truly amazing and awesome in the original sense of the word--a phenomenon that dramatically reveals something about the size of the universe, the limits of technology and the ability of intelligent beings to travel among the stars.

Yes, I'm talking about the beautiful sojourns of Voyager I and Voyager II. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of Voyager II, Aug. 20, 1977. Voyager I was actually launched 16 days later, on Sept. 5, 1977, but quickly overtook her sister traveler and is now far ahead.

What a sweet investment. Designed to study Jupiter and Saturn during a four-year mission, the spacecraft continue to send back data far in excess of the mission plan. Voyagers I and II not only explored Jupiter and Saturn, discovering dozens of new features, such as moons and their volcanoes, canyons, water deposits, energy fields and other details. Voyager II was then given a slingshot boost around Saturn and dispatched to distant Uranus, then on to Neptune, where it discovered new moons, new rings, radiant white clouds as wide as the Earth and much more. I watched on Aug. 24, 1989, as the first close-up images of beautiful blue-green Neptune arrive one-billionth of a watt at a time, painted on a screen in the Hyatt Regency, which had provided a direct link to NASA for space cadets.

Now both Voyagers are on their way out of the solar system to study the heliopause--a bubble of solar particles the Sun inflates around itself by outward pressure of the so-called "solar wind." (All of the planets in the solar system, including Earth, reside inside that bubble). And NASA hopes to study interstellar winds that blow particles towards our sun at the rate of 1 million miles per hour, slowing to a fraction of that speed near the heliopause.

Unfortunately, transmitters will have ceased sending data back by the time the probes approach the first stars on their paths. Even though Voyager I has traveled farther than any manmade object in history, don't wait up for news of such encounters. It'll be 40,000 years before Voyager I reaches its first star, known as AC+79 3888, in the constellation Camelopardalis. About 255,000 years later (!), Voyager II should arrive in the neighborhood of Sirius, brightest star in our sky.

As I say, don't wait up.