Captain Nemo was a fictional character created by the science fiction author Jules Verne. Verne’s Nemo, who was cleverly named after the Latin word for “nobody,” would aimlessly roam the depths of the sea in his submarine “the Nautilus”, consumed by his antipathy to imperialism and seeking vengeance against his very own British Empire.
It was fitting then, that when engineers were looking for the most remote place on earth, the place farthest from any land mass, they decided to name that place Point Nemo, honoring the seeker named after nobody searching for nowhere.
The practical need for finding a place farthest away from somewhere was due to the fact that most of the things humans put into space to orbit the earth have a lifespan, after which they become space junk, potentially cluttering the atmosphere the way things that we put into the ocean pollute the ocean. Orbits eventually degrade, and the satellites burn up into tiny particles as they re-enter earth’s atmosphere. But many of the bigger chunks end up landing somewhere on earth, potentially creating a hazard. Although to date there has only been one recorded incident of space junk injuring a human, and it only braised the very surprised woman’s shoulder, the threat to humans and other animals is very real.
To abate the hazard, engineers decided to simply aim a satellite’s degrading orbit to a specific place on earth. Hard to imagine the scene; maybe they were passing a joint, sitting on barstools, walking down the sterile hallway on the fourth floor of building A7 at Caltech, or searching a cabinet for a Keurig cup, unaware of the soft buzzing of the fluorescent lights above— I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine one of them turning to the other and saying, “Let’s find a spot on earth that is big and uninhabited, and preferably really wet and deep.” So they set out to determine the place on earth that is farthest away from any land mass.
One of the engineers, undoubtedly fond of poetic phrases, referred to the place as the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, and it is, essentially, the middle of nowhere. They dubbed it Point Nemo. In Wikitruth, credit for discovering Point Nemo goes to Canadian-Croatian survey engineer Hrvoje Lukatela, and Caltech had nothing to do with it. He’s a rather interesting fellow, I imagine, participating in projects as diverse as planning the orientation toward Mecca for King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah to designing the geometrics for Environment Canada’s Ice Centre in Ottawa.
Point Nemo is so far from humans that the closest people to it are aboard the International Space Station. Perhaps coincidentally, rather than teeming with sea life, it is also one of the most lifeless places on earth due to it sitting within the South Pacific Gyre, a current which manages to flow far from nutrient-rich waters.
If you were interested in going there (and who wouldn’t be interested in intentionally going nowhere when most of us spend our lives unintentially going nowhere?) you may or not be surprised to find that in fact there is a lot of stuff there. If you guessed plastics, you would have nailed it. Yeah, that plastic container you discarded in Santa Monica may travel to the farthest corner on earth. Point Nemo, it turns out, may not have much life there, but it is filled with human detritus.
The problem of course is that our search for nowhere inevitably leads to somewhere, and our search for nothing inevitably leads to something. We can aim our obsolete satellites and DVD players toward Point Nemo, but as philosophers and scientists have been telling us for millennia, matter is generally conserved, so even the place farthest from anywhere becomes cluttered and transmogrifies from nowhere to somewhere. Perhaps, as my favorite book title by Paul Watzlawick says, “The Situation is Hopeless but Not Serious.” Perhaps, like fictional Nemo, this existence is not so much about finding the elusive nowhere, but instead roaming the depths of the sea seeking vengeance against, well, whoever and whatever life has thrown at us. Or as my college friend Rabbi David Frank said to me once, we just keep on raging until the end.