Sunrise Sunset

The earliest sunrise doesn’t take place on the longest day.  Things like this are what kept me out of a career in astronomy.  No, the earliest morning occurs about a week before the summer solstice.  It keeps staying light later in the evening, but the darkness creeps back in the a.m.  I know this because I awake before sunrise and I jog at first light in the summer.  For a couple of weeks now I’ve been having to start my jog later and later as I wait for the sun to catch up.  The latest sunset is about a week after the solstice.  Now matter how you count it, the days are getting shorter now.  Another lesson I’ve learned from my early morning jogs is that it’s chilliest just before sunrise.  The temperature keeps dropping from what it is around 3:00 a.m., meaning that it’s coolest just before the sun comes up.  Life lessons from the jogging trail.

I took astronomy both in high school and college.  Always fascinated by space I guess I was optimistic that perhaps the mathematics would’ve dropped out of it somewhere between diploma and baccalaureate.  My mind is more of the humanities type, dealing with approximations and analogies.  The concepts I get, but I can’t swim in formulas.  One of the main sources of perplexities was just what I’ve been describing about the earliest dawn and latest evening.  Shouldn’t they be the same day?  And how is it that the longest day is neither the earliest sunrise nor latest sunset?  Math may explain that, but I can’t.  There’s a wonder in it all.

Jogs before work (for I start that early as well) are possible only a few months of the year at this latitude.  They will give way to lunchtime breaks soon enough and yet summer has only just started.  The days will seem longer although in fact they are getting shorter.  You see what I mean about approximations and analogies?  I still occasionally read books about astronomy, and when NASA (or some privately funded venture) makes announcements about what’s going on in the heavens I pay attention.  Yes, I would liked to have gone into astronomy, but life has a way of steering you down certain paths.  Besides, there’s a certain wonder in retaining the mystery of how the longest day occurs three times in the course of two weeks, depending on your definition.  

Just the Beginning

It occurs to me that my post on Sunday may have been a touch cryptic.  (I can be naughty at times.)  Horror Homeroom was good enough to publish a piece I’d written about the movie Midsommar, a film that got its hooks into me earlier this year.  Here’s the link in case you’d like to read it (it’s free): http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/midsommar-and-cross-quarter-day-horror/.  It’s not an article using the Bible and horror as in yesterday’s post, but rather it is an exploration of the broader relationship between horror and religion.  The origin of religion has long been a fascination, and the more I look into the connection with what makes us afraid, the more I find in common.  But why midsummer when summer’s only just beginning?

Ancient peoples in temperate zones, according to the records they left behind, carefully observed the change of seasons.  Without a tilted, spinning globe as a model the science of the time (which was likely their religion) suggested that the heavenly bodies were migratory.  If you use raw observation that’s what seems to be the case.  Now that I sit in the same office every day with a south and a west window, it becomes very clear how the sun shifts over the course of the year.  In the winter it seems to be on a journey far to the south.  Religions of such science would want to know, of course, when it would start coming back.  The years were divided into segments—we still recognize four of them in our seasons although, in truth, they are merely gradual changes that take place in the weather as the earth’s tilt moves our hemisphere toward or away from the sun.

Midsummer was a northern European festival to celebrate the longest day.  Whether this is the start of summer or the middle of summer is merely a matter of interpretation.  The film Midsommar plays on the disorienting long span of daylight in northern Sweden.  Without the dark to guide us, sleep and the regular rhythms of daily life can become difficult.  When the people believe the old religion, well, let your imagination run wild.  Horror films often lurk in these transitional times of the year.  We tend to associate them with Halloween, but there’s enough to be afraid of right now.  Not all horror has religious components, of course.  Nevertheless it has been there from the beginning, from when van Helsing pulled out a crucifix to frighten off Dracula.  And it continues, in perhaps more sophisticated ways, even in the broad daylight.

Too Much Light?

The summer solstice comes whether we want it to or not.  Today is the longest day in the northern hemisphere although, as I write this the sun has not yet risen.  It was a sleepless night, making this day seem even longer than it already is.  Over on Horror Homeroom, where they understand sleepless nights, my piece on the movie Midsommar will appear.  I won’t say here what I say there, or you might not go and read it.  I will say that for a horror film Midsommar boldly sets itself in a sun-bathed atmosphere, making it all the more unsettling.  To see more you’ll need to visit the Homeroom.

There are implications for the longest day.  One of the most obvious is that from here on out days will be getting shorter.  That’s the thing about anticipation—we crave the light when it’s in such short supply in December and January.  This year of Covid, the spring blended into a long stretch of social distancing and isolation, even as the days were growing longer and the weather warmer.  It was like some spokes were missing from the wheel of the year.  Now that summer’s here many people are acting as if the need for caution is gone.  Midsommar may help with that, since it shows that the daylight sometimes shows us what we don’t really wish to see.

Ancient peoples kept an eye on the seasonal changes long before they learned to write.  Etched into the landscape markers like Stonehenge and Avebury and countless others were oriented toward celestial points on the solstices.  Equinoxes were also observed, as well as the half-way points between.  This altering of the earth to commemorate the progressing of the year took great effort, so we must assume it had great importance.  You don’t move boulders unless you feel strongly compelled to do so.  Such compulsion strikes us all as religious.

So it’s the longest day of the year.  What will we do with it?  When we look back at it, will we see what we wished we might have done with all that light on our side?  Will we treat it just like any other day?  The beauty of holidays (of which capitalism recognizes far too few) is that they teach us to stop and reflect for a few moments on the messages our planet sends us.  Our longest day is also a message.  What we do with that information is up to us.

Space Farce

Okay, so “Space Force” sounds like a gimmick that you’d see in a 1950’s ad geared to dungaree-wearing boys.  These boys, who’d be named “Dick” would show the girls, named “Jane,” just how it was done.  So as I read about the furor of dedicating a King James Bible from the Bible Museum as the official Bible for military branches aimed at the stars, I had to think how very small we actually are.  So 45 thinks, like Reagan thought, that we need outer-space defenses.  These guys need to read more science fiction.  Actually, some plain old science would help.  If there are most advanced civilizations out there—and such seems increasingly likely, given that our understanding of science is subject to change—we are nothing more than cosmic mosquitoes buzzing close to our own planet where we can wail on each other in the name of lucre.  And we call it “Space Force.”

An article on NPR points out the hypocrisy of swearing in the military on a Bible.  One guy in there, I’ve heard tell, was called “the prince of peace.”  He’s somewhere near the back.  The public loves a good warmonger, though.  We can send our tentative rockets into orbit where bug-eyed aliens laugh with bemusement, and say “Just you try something.”  Or we can make business deals with Russia with one hand while pointing our missiles in their direction with the other.  Is that a missile or am I misreading something, Dick?  I can’t ask Jane, because she just follows along.  Maybe we’re inheriting the consequences of those who grew up reading Dick and Jane.  Boys with their rockets, girls with their dolls.

Bringing religion into the military is nothing new.  German soldiers marched out into a couple of World Wars with “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their waists.  Millions died.  No lessons were learned.  So now we want to take conflict so far over our heads that we can’t even see.  Ancient people knew the gods were fighting far above.  That’s how they made sense of the world.  Some, like Erich von Däniken took those stories literally and thought our alien observers were the reason.  Now that we’ve got drones we have no need of UFOs anymore.  All that sci-fi I watched as a kid wasn’t wasted after all.  Only I grew up reading that Bible instead of swearing on it.  I was pretty sure that war wasn’t a good thing, as he rode on a red horse with his sword pointing upward.  Time to dust off William S. Gray and get back to watching Space Force. 

From NASA’s photo library

Pointing to the Moon

The failure of India’s  Chandrayaan 2 to maintain contact, intended to make India the fourth nation to successfully conduct a lunar landing, sent me reading about the moon.  I remember the first manned landing, which happened when I was six, so the idea that we could make it that far seemed less impressive than it really is, I suppose.  I was fascinated by early space travel, and part of this may have been because of the moment of silence announced in school the day Apollo 13 safely returned to earth after the oxygen tank explosion that made its landing impossible.  As I was reading about the many moon missions that took place before I was born, I was surprised to learn how many nations are still attempting to reach our nearest neighbor.  This year alone China, Israel, and India have all attempted to land up there.

Israel’s mission called its lunar lander Beresheet.  It was the first attempt to land the Bible on the moon.  Beresheet is the Hebrew title of Genesis.  The US missions were named Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, and Apollo.  Ironically for the persistently religious nation, our only supernatural title was the name of a Greek deity.  Israel was true to its roots with its naming convention, but there is kind of a paradox involved.  In the world of the Bible the earth is the center of the universe and the moon is a quasi-living being circling about our stationary fix in this fictional view of the cosmos.  That’s not to say our own views may not some day be regarded as fictional as well, but simply that we now know the view in Genesis is incorrect.

Of course, the word “genesis” can mean a purely secular beginning as well.  It is a compound word that is often translated as “in the beginning.”  As such, it is appropriate for the first attempt at a moon landing, or any other great venture.  Still, it is instantly recognizable as the first word in the Bible, indicating a kind of strange juxtaposition where the biblical moon—which is not the same as the astronomical moon—are brought together.  Unlike the book of Genesis, the moon has been reached many times by others before.  The old and the new meet in this attempt to reach into space.  Meanwhile our problems continue down here.  Maybe that’s why we continue to attempt to reach the heavens.  And in that sense, no better title applies than that of the book that somehow defies rational explanation.

Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Goblins out There

From Wikimedia Commons

You step away from the telescope for a few months and see what happens.  That may sound like a recipe for some kind of cosmic soup, but as we find ourselves so busy with earthly matters it’s hard to keep up with the heavenly.  I’ve just been reading about the discovery of “The Goblin”—appropriate as we tiptoe into October.  The Goblin is officially a dwarf planet named 2015TG387, which falls trippingly off the tongue.  For those of us who never even saw Pluto before it was demoted as a planet, the distance of this planetoid boggles the mind.  It also makes space feel somehow less empty.  In fact, our solar system’s much more crowded than it was when I took astronomy class in college.

The universe—space—is close kin to our ideas of religion.  “God,” however defined, is “up there.”  As Galileo encouraged telescopes turned outward we began to discover mundane, if complicated, ways of explaining the universe.  Nobody looked through the eyepiece and saw the deity waving back.  Space was cold, dark, and largely empty.  Then the idea eventually grew that it was full of dark matter which, like spiritual entities, can’t be seen.  Unlike spiritual entities, however, it can be hypothesized.  Calculated, even if not measured.  And since it isn’t supernatural, it’s just fine to keep in our cosmic soup.  The problem with any recipe, however, is that it seems that each time you make it the results are slightly different.

It’s somehow appropriate that our new space neighbor is called the Goblin.  The idea of a cosmos devoid of any intelligent life—supernatural or no—is somewhat scary.  Looking at the headlines of what we’re doing to one another down here, and nobody willing to take the reins of reason, we increasingly hope for something beyond mere nature in the cold, dark reaches above.  And that we’ve found such a thing as a goblin—a supernatural entity if there ever was one—is telling.  In fact, all our planets are named after gods.  We can blame the Greeks and Romans (and even the Mesopotamians) for that.  Still, the tradition continued onto the worlds they couldn’t see: Neptune and Uranus and, for a while, Pluto.  We can’t escape the idea that what’s up there is more powerful than our minuscule human troubles.  Our slowly eroding atmosphere is all that keeps us alive down here.  And now there’s a goblin circling all around us, so far away that few will ever even catch a glimpse.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Moving Plans

I’m moving. I’m seriously considering Enceladus. Oh, you haven’t been? One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus was discovered to have the basic elements of life as Cassini plunged to its death in Saturn’s shroud. But why Enceladus? I want to make space great again. You see, in my native country all sense of fair play has fled one of the political parties, of which there are unfortunately only two. There haven’t within my lifetime and many decades before, been any contested wins by Democratic candidates. There have been two by Republicans, among the last two elected, and yet they keep changing the rules about who can appoint Supreme Court justices. When I was a kid stacking the deck got you kicked out of the game. What’s fair’s fair.

I hear that on Enceladus they are open to actual intelligent life. You see, they’re evolving and they know it. Unlike my native planet, they believe representative government should be, well, representative. There should be some account taken of the majority. There are no Fundamentalists on Enceladus. See, there they realize that an outgoing president has the legal authority to appoint a judge, bypassing the senate. They believe, I hear, that the senate is controlled by a being called “the adversary.” One of their recruiters told me that the phrase translates, in Hebrew, to “the Satan.” They believe the adversary should not be able to change the rules every time. They’re not Fundamentalists, but they believe in Hell. They say it’s three planets from the sun, make a left at Lisbon.

Of course, they don’t see the sun much on Enceladus. They orbit Saturn, which doesn’t emit any light of its own, although it has the coolest set of rings in the solar system. It’s icy there for a reason. But the employment situation favors the workers. They believe in rationality there. They don’t put children in cages. Their scientists have studied the primates on our planet and have found that all species of them, except one, will reject leadership by individuals who bully the group. They have documented studies—for they believe in science there—that show chimpanzees will drive out an abuser of power because even they have a sense of fair play. Of course, chimpanzees don’t have a senate, but on Enceladus, some joke that it’s hard to tell the difference some times. They have a sense of humor there which, I think, goes a long way toward balancing out the chill. I’m moving, and Enceladus is firmly in the running.

My Heavens

The details escape me. I was a student at Grove City College, working on a paper. In the library I ran across an article about a rain of fish. Always interested in the unusual, I was surprised to see such a piece in a reputable journal, and up until that time I’d never heard of Charles Fort or his gathering of such accounts from around the world. That paper was in my mind when I picked up It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes by Jerry Dennis and Glenn Wolff at a used bookstore. Subtitled Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky, it was published by the mainstream Harper, so I figured it wasn’t too far afield from reality. It turned out to be more the subtitle than the title, but an engaging read nevertheless.

There is a small section on rains of fish and other strange objects, but the book is really a tribute to the sky. Although I’m not an anthropologist, I have long been intrigued by the fact that people everywhere associate the sky with the divine. From the human perspective, it’s massive and all-encompassing. No matter where you stand on this planet, the sky extended over you, engulfing the horizon and implying even more beyond. It is responsible for our weather, and without the buffering of our atmosphere no life would’ve evolved on the earth at all (and that would be a pity because I enjoy writing this blog). Perhaps even before there were humans proper, our ancestors thought there was something divine about the sky.

While the firmament can’t be contained in a book, this one tries to consider just about everything you might find in the celestial realm. From extremes of weather to meteors to strange things falling from the sky, it tells of rain and snow and sunshine, insects, bats, and birds. The four seasons don’t really function as the best conceit for the book, since the sky is eternal and many of the aspects discussed are present all year long—the moon is with us always and the sun rises and sets even in winter. Nevertheless, this strange and alluring book demonstrates how the sky makes us what we are. Even though it was written in the last century it warns of global warming—then merely an idea—and shows how humans are capable of destroying that which gives them life. That article back in college suggested that the impossible happens, and that, given how the world is going, causes me to look upward with wonder.

Of Gears and Gods

We develop pictures in our minds of the kinds of things that belong together in different eras. Dinosaurs, for example, don’t belong with our own species, no matter how much we may occasionally wish it were so. Horseless carriages don’t populate the seventeenth century and complex machines, we tend to think, didn’t really come about until medieval Europe (and then they were often used for torture). Our view of the world is, of course, one of comfort with the certainties of history. That’s why the Antikythera Mechanism is such a fascinating artifact. A very sophisticated device with gear trains and cranks and dials, it astonishes those who first encounter it in that it was made before the Common Era somewhere in the sway of ancient Greece. It is, in essence, a kind of computer. Long before Joseph met Mary.

Alexander Jones’ A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World is a pretty thorough introduction to the device, including the mechanics of how it works as well as how astronomy works. You see, the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to demonstrate the relative motion of the planets, including the sun and moon. For a device in the geocentric world of ancient Greece, that’s pretty remarkable. It predicted eclipses and showed the phases of the moon. It also makes me ponder the fact that most ancient people considered the planets deities. Long before Newton, then, some were recognizing that even the gods could be made to work according to a crank and gears.

Science and religion coexisted peacefully in those days. Although only one such device has been discovered, it’s virtually certain that more existed. Gods and gears both had a place in such a world. Along the centuries, however, the idea grew that if gears worked, we no longer required a deity. Occam’s razor has its uses, to be sure, but it can shave a little too closely from time to time, nicking delicate flesh. The idea that one side only can be right—and since we can see with our eyes that science works—tends to favor the mechanistic universe. There’s no disputing that science makes our lives easier and that its method is self-correcting and generally effective. The hands that cranked that ancient geared device, however, likely belonged to a believer in gods. Such belief didn’t prevent progress, but then some kind of Fundamentalists killed Socrates for his own form of heresy. Perhaps the true answer lies in balance. It may also be the most difficult of principles, scientific or otherwise, to achieve.

Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.