True Lonliness Is Hard to Find

On June 30th, 1971, Alfred Worden became indisputably  the most “alone” man in the history of the human race, as he orbited to the far side of the moon aboard Apollo 15. At that point, he was 2,235 miles away from his two fellow astronauts in Mare Imbrium on the moon’s surface, meaning the distance between him and the nearest human being was larger than could concievably ever have occurred on Earth (and slightly larger than on previous lunar missions since a wider lunar orbit had been used for scientific purposes). What’s more, the average distance between Worden and every other living human was also larger than had ever been possible before, since aside from the twosome on the moon the rest of humanity was some 240,000 miles away. And since the moon at that point was directly between Worden and the Earth, he could not even hear a live human voice for the full hour it took to re-emerge from the moon’s shadow.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest in western Brazil, there’s a man in his late-40’s who hasn’t seen another human being in at least 3 years, and who hasn’t encountered anyone who speaks his language in almost 15. He’s a native american whose village was destroyed by bulldozers in 1996, and appears now to be the last of his tribe. In 2007, the Brazillian government declared an area of 31-square miles in which he is known to travel to be off limits to any further development or incursion, and since then no one has even attempted to contact him. We know from the occasional flyover that he spends his days hunting wild game, collecting honey from wild beehives, and occasionally making ceremonial markings on trees or digging ceremonial pits. It is likely he will live at least another 10 years, and he’ll likely never again speak to anyone who can understand him. He may go the entire time without seeing another soul.

These two stories, both of which I wound up thinking about this week (although for unconnected reasons) got me wondering at what point in my life I was most like either of these gentlemen, and I encourage you to do the same. Decide when your total distance from the nearest human being was largest, when you average distance from all other humans was largest, when you went for the longest stretches of time without seeing another human and when you went the longest without communicating with another human with whom you shared a language.

If you’re like me, the answers say a lot about the omnipresence of humanity in both a geographic and technological sense. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever been more than half a mile from another human being, and even that figure may be too large. Sure, I like to go hiking and backpacking, but I don’t do it by myself. Certainly I’ve occasionally been part of a small group that’s been quite separated from the bulk of humanity; probably when I was in the Galapagos this summer my average distance from other humans was maximized, but even then, I was in a sizable tour group, and not far from the inhabited islands. I wasn’t even that far from mainland Brazil.

As to the other questions, I don’t think I’ve ever spent any time in a place where I couldn’t have communicated with another human being if I’d wanted to. I’ve only once travelled out of the country by myself, and even then, I stuck to places where I knew the languages. And even if I hadn’t, my trusty iPhone (and it’s trusty Skype app) gave me the ability to call home any time I wanted. I suppose sometimes on weekends I spend entire afternoons in the physics building working on projects by myself, and may not actually speak to anyone else for quite a few hours. But I always have the option if I want it. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t.

So what’s my point? I don’t know really. I’m not trying to cheapen the sense of loneliness anyone out there might be feeling. But I certainly wanted to share those amazing little factoids about just how isolated a human being can really be, and I also wanted to share my amazement at how isolated most of us are NOT. I thought at first it would be a fun game to decide when I was furthest from the nearest living person, but in fact it’s just to hard  to be entertaining. When was the last time you were even more than 100 yards from another person? Unless you’re both outdoorsy and into recklessly hiking alone, it’s probably been quite some time.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

One Response to True Lonliness Is Hard to Find

  1. Pingback: The Return of WLOG Blog (with free bonus preview of my semester) « WLOG blog

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