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.
It is a cold, windy New England day in November. You find yourself in Providence. How can you not visit the gravesite of H. P. Lovecraft? I have mentioned Lovecraft before, in my podcast on Dagon, but that brief citation does not give credit to a man whose life provides episodes that feel strangely familiar to me. Barely known as a writer in his own lifetime, Lovecraft had difficulty finding employment and had a fascination with ancient gods. Indeed, I discovered Lovecraft while researching Dagon for a serious presentation and soon students were telling me about the Cthulhu (I would not dare attempt to pronounce) Mythos and how I had only scratched the surface of his writing.
Lovecraft’s fascination with ancient gods brought new life to forgotten entities. Dagon, despite being a major deity of ancient Mesopotamia, would likely have been completely forgotten by all but professors of arcane mythology had not Lovecraft resurrected him, albeit in a fishy form. His fascination with the protagonists of ancient myths, nearly forgotten deities, clearly influenced Neil Gaiman in his American Gods, and has preserved for the modern reader some of the fascination with powerful, ancient forces that show the insignificance of humanity. I found reading American Gods while in Providence a very humbling experience. Lovecraft also gave the world Arkham, the asylum of Batman fame, as well as Miskatonic University.
Along with Melville and Poe, Lovecraft deserves a place of honor in the pantheon of American literary explorers. The assortment of gifts left for him at his tombstone, including a small cairn, pennies, a pen, and even a note reading “thank you for the ideas,” attests his local fame. The prominence of his books at neighborhood bookstores assured me that I was not the only traveler to breathe in the air that Lovecraft exhaled. My visit also brought to mind a story that a friend of mine started to write some years ago. It had something to do with ancient gods coming back to life, although my friend had never heard of Lovecraft or Gaiman. Lovecraft’s spirit, it seems, may still be alive and well in Rhode Island and in the minds of other residents of Arkham.
“Myth” is a difficult word to define. In the ancient world, however, reality, or truth, was expressed in terms of myth. Today we assume that myth is “untrue” or false. This dichotomy often leads to an unfortunate undervaluing of ancient texts and stories. At root the problem is that we are on the far side of a paradigm shift. This podcast addresses the question of how we might try to understand myth in a way that fits with the modern outlook. Since historical veracity is the modern paradigm, it stands to reason that history has become the mythology of present-day thinkers.
Yesterday I found myself at my first ever robotics competition. As a scholar more familiar with the offering recipes for long extinct mythological deities than with the practical application of computer technology, I felt a little out of my league. I had gone to support the local high school robotics team, and, well, robots and Halloween seemed a natural combination.
The first thing that stood out was the large NASA van parked in front of the school. Fidgeting over finding a job at the moment, I realized that the money is far more forthcoming for practical enterprises than reading ancient history. It is, literally, for rocket science. So I was crammed into high school gym bleachers with other aging parents, surrounded by kids smarter than I’ll ever hope to be, watching robots compete in exercises too complex for the average Republican. There was rock music blaring and yes, nerdy people dressed like science fiction movie/television characters. I was really feeling lost when I spied the character below.
I had no idea that Dr. Jim of the Thinking Shop had relatives in the robotics field! As I saw the bearded Norseman approaching me, I was strangely reassured that there might be a place for me here after all. Religion and NASA do share an interest in celestial realms, and if my generation has been capable of producing kids this smart, there may be hope for the future yet.