|Ominous Comets and Other Musings
||[Nov. 12th, 2014|05:43 pm]
Years ago, a group of humans imagined, designed, built, and operated an incredibly complex machine, a machine that today released the machine it had been carrying...and that second machine approached, and landed on, a comet. I do not know the name of every person involved in that remarkable achievement...there were, in all, hundreds of them, a community dedicated to getting the Rosetta Project to this point, even as some people by necessity left, and others joined, the group. It was not one nation's achievement, something that makes me happy because it means no one nation's problems are likely to derail the continued movement of humans toward space travel. I watched the ESA live stream and when the worried looks began to ease, and the first smiles--and then more smiles--showed appeared, quickly followed by cheers, hugs, fist-bumps, I rejoiced with them, tears of happiness stinging my eyes.
Once upon a time, comets were considered celestial warnings, a sign of something terrible happening, or about to happen. Now this comet, carrying its new addition, a machine of human construction, can be seen as a sign of something wonderful, something hopeful for humankind.
Or not. Because we have learned, as our communicative reach has grown, that on this planet, wherever humans are, there is always something terrible happening, or about to happen. Some of it is, and has always been, beyond human power to predict or prevent: "'natural disasters" we call these, though now we come closer to prediction in several areas, when anyone listens. But some of the terrible happenings are the direct acts of humans: deliberate intentional harm done to one another, ignorant harm done to the planet that sustains us. Whenever a comet shows up in the sky, something terrible will follow...because the terrible events are numerous enough, and our pattern-making minds find "the year (before/after/when) the comet came" to be a handy marker for it.
Today as I watched the live stream, listened to people speak who had found the comet in the sky 45 years ago, or built part of the instrumentation that went into the lander, or sent the rocket off ten years ago, or spoke with pride of a city or a team involved in some part of the project...I knew that along with my excitement and my joy at the success, this landing and this comet would also be linked to other world events and events in my own life, both terrible and hopeful. A school blown up by a suicide bomber because "Western learning is evil"....so children must die lest they imagine such things as landing on a comet. An agreement between nations to cut carbon emissions. The release of a friend's book. An anniversary. A death. The discovery yesterday that my husband had another stomach tumor.
The comet speeds on, drawn inexorably by the simple--but inexplicable--force of gravity, its exact route resulting from the attraction between two masses, the much larger one of that star we familiarly call the sun, the much smaller that of the cold comet, leaking its substance as the sun's heat joins the sun's mass in changing the comet from its original size to something smaller--and, ultimately--something nonexistent. It moves without reference to this planet; we are at best a tiny perturbation in its orbit, if our orbits happen to come near one another. Nothing happening here changes it: not births, not deaths, not health, not sickness, not peace, not war, not anything....so it has been for comet after comet, aeon after aeon...until today, when something here...an idea, a dream, a plan, a group of people saying not just "what if?" but "how?" and then "let's try" created from thought and skill and hard work something human that landed on that comet.
And so this comet is an omen, and cannot be anything else: an omen that our reach--even our grasp, in the bodies of our making--goes beyond the planet we live on, beyond the International Space Station some are able to visit, beyond the Moon on which human feet have stepped, beyond Mars, where others of our machines rove and send back pictures. Our reach has gone farther before, in machines that took pictures, that sent back data. But placing an object, a human made object, on a comet...as with Mars, as with the Moon, that's a lot more than a drive-by. Our human touch has done that.
And our human touch blew up those children. Signed that treaty. Held newborn infants. Held the hands of the dying. Pulled triggers with intent to kill. Pulled fragments of shells from wounded flesh. Kneaded bread. Stirred a pot of soup. Stirred a vat of poison. Stroked lovers' bodies. Stroked a bow across the strings of a cello. Set brick and stone in place. Set a mine in place. Poured water for the thirsty to drink. Poured poison into a well. Used technology to spy on someone for mischief. Used technology to peer into my husband's body and locate a cancer. Everything that humans can do, is done as soon as a new capacity comes to humans. Everything that humans can do is done somewhere, every day.
As omen, the comet can mark any event in anyone's life, any accident, any intent, any good or evil deed.
Today, we became an omen to the comet. Even out in space, even far away and traveling fast, a comet is not safe from us. I'm happy about that, because I have always been fascinated by stars, by distant planets, by the concept of a frontier, of places still unknown. But as omens go, we are ominous. Our desire to see, to touch, to do things to whatever we see and touch--our curiosity and our urger to manipulate that which we find--and then our drive for dominance, common to the structure of social mammals--ensures that we will not explore harmlessly. Those of us who want that exploration to go on (and I am one of them) must admit, and accept, that putting humans elsewhere means bringing along the whole vast baggage of human neurology--our innate behavior patterns--and human history, over which many comets have presided as omens of danger and disaster.
I hope we humans, we busy, inquisitive, inventive, noble and evil, kind and cruel, loyal and quarrelsome, constructive and destructive humankind, are someday perceived as a good omen. And I think that's going to take some working on.