I See Only Nothing

Once considered to be bad omens, comets are becoming a fad for those who can take their eyes off the screen for a few moments to look at the sky. Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), apart from falling trippingly from the tongue, is apparently now visible with the naked eye. I’ve been looking forward to this comet since at least January, although living just to the west of New York City complicates viewing possibilities quite a bit. You see, although I am now an urbanite, I’m really a rural rube at heart. I grew up in a town of less than 1000, and was born in a town of less than 15000. I attended college in a small town and my first teaching job was in a rural setting in Wisconsin. Apart from the fact that I’m now convinced people have very little control over their own destinies, I have preferred to live in places where I can see the night-time sky. Perhaps it was my love of science fiction as a child, but for whatever reason, space has always captured my imagination. I used to drag my brother out on frigid nights to look at the stars, and even tried to teach myself the azimuth coordinate system to document precisely where I’d seen something. I took astronomy classes in high school and in college. In middle school I did an intensive report on comets that saved my science grade that year.

Hyakutake, 1996.  My first comet.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Comet ISON, however, has been refusing to behave as it was projected that it might. Although it could still turn into a very bright sky-show, so far it has been difficult to spot, and, at least for my location, at inconvenient hours of the day. Much to the chagrin of creationists, ISON is 4.6 billion years old, although it is just getting out for it’s first tour of the solar system. Part of the Oort cloud region, Comet ISON is probably a piece of a never-formed planet out past Neptune that decided to take its first cosmic stroll about a million years ago. It’s had a date with the sun since that time. The scientific jury’s still out as to whether ISON will go out with a blaze of glory after its close encounter with our sun and if it will come back around again to wow generations of our distant progeny (presuming we survive that long). For me it will be a matter of seeing if the clouds ever break in the east at 4 a.m. so that I can actually get a glimpse of the sky.

Hale-Bopp, 1997; a little over-exposed--one of the hazards of amateur photography with film.

Hale-Bopp, 1997; a little over-exposed–one of the hazards of amateur photography with film.

Comets were once thought to be heralds of the gods. Like other variable objects in an otherwise pretty predictable night-time sky, they can be either very bright or very dim (even invisible, for all practical purposes). When Halley’s Comet came around in 1986 I was living in Boston and couldn’t see the heavenly visitor. In 1996 Hyakutake buzzed earth, I stood in wonder in the woods of Wisconsin, photographing my first comet. A year later when Hale-Bopp blazed through the sky, I was out with my camera trying to capture it on film (a medium, I understand, that is about as old as Comet ISON). Were these visitors bad omens? One comet may have been decidedly devastating for our dinosaur friends, while some speculate that life on earth was seeded by a comet (making it a kind of secular god, I suppose). I’m only convinced that we have no control over our fate as I stand outside at 4 a.m. yet again, only to find clouds in the east and a comet in my heart.

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