Nov 23, 2014 0
The Rosetta, a mother craft that hurtled through space for 10 years, recently dropped a landing craft called Philae on a distant comet called by scientists 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet is relatively small, fewer than three miles in diameter, its arcane name bestowed to distinguish it from thousands of other comets and asteroids. Gotta keeps things straight when these objects are a third of a trillion miles from earth, speeding at something like 35,000 miles an hour.
These numbers alone should make us take notice. It is not a bad thing, amidst cruelty, oppression, barbarity across our own planet, to appreciate the potential of the human mind – and the human spirit – by focusing on other planets, other objects in space, fellow residents of the universe.
The saints and sages of ancient Egypt and Athens used to gaze at the stars, and chart them. Before them, primitive grunters around the world would look heavenward and wonder. Most of us still do more than occasionally. What is out there? How long has this all been spinning? Where does it end? – and, then, what is beyond that boundary? What is our place in all this?
Such has been the inspiration for theologians, philosophers, scientists, poets, and lovers since time immemorial. Which is good. It is good to look up. It is good to look away, sometimes, from our own concerns. “Keep your eyes on the stars,” Theodore Roosevelt once said, “but keep your feet on the ground.” The scientists behind Rosetta had a very specific goal: to test the comet for the presence of elements, and water, that might be similar to those found on earth.
Their idea, since current theories identify comets as leftover crumbs from the Big Bang, like rock-solid dust bunnies under the universe’s bed, that if any of them slammed into Earth in primordial times, then perhaps a droplet of water eventually led to… well, you get it, iPads and all the rest. Maybe so. I am not a proponent of a 5-billion-year-old universe, but let them have their fun. Who knows what will be discovered?
Whilst I seriously am in awe of this mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the inspiration it will foster, I am amused by some aspects of the mission and its guiding earthbound crew. As I chuckle I am also grateful for the following:
When the scientists made their first joint comments to the world’s press, they fumbled with microphones that didn’t work, or got tangled between them;
The lander bounced like a tennis ball on the low-gravity comet. This was always a threat, especially if (as turned out) solar panels were turned from, instead of toward, the sun. A shame, but some data was collected and beamed to earth;
One of the scientists wore a wild shirt in a press conference, a colorful silky affair festooned with drawings of sexy women. It was decried by various troops of the Thought Police as sexist and inappropriate, but a) it was hand-made for him by his girlfriend; and b) the fellow, as a scientist, should have a right to assert his Inner Nerdiness;
In a subsequent press conference, the brainiac broke down crying, as he apologized for wearing the shirt. He plants a (virtual) spec on a (virtual) dot almost a trillion miles from home, and he loses his composure when the Shirt hit the fan.
… all are examples, or reminders really, that humankind is not approaching superhuman status, neither our emotions nor even our brains. We still bumble and stumble, sort of walking into trees and puddles while gazing at the stars. We build fancier toys, shinier too, but hardly are closer to understanding Everything about life – hardly Anything. The Big Bang is the latest answer to Why and When questions about creation. But… the more I hear scientists explaining it, the more, it seems to me, that they are just restating the first chapter of Genesis. Merely with less clarity.
Those news stories about chess masters playing against computers? Sometimes the computer wins, and folks start talking about the threat to human beings, if computers become smarter than we are. I would remind the nervous folks that there are always the options of removing batteries or pulling plugs; and at the root of the matter, human beings make computers, human beings program computers, and human beings, at least around here, screw them up on occasion. I think we are safe.
How is this essay a message for Thanksgiving Week? To me, simple; a lot simpler than landing a vacuum cleaner on a comet. The ESA triumph, even with glitches, makes me give thanks for the minds wherewith God has graced us. The renewed inspiration provided by an astonishing space mission makes me give thanks for the spark of creativity God has placed in all of us – we literally cannot create anything, but we can rearrange and discover things, therefore able to appreciate the quality of creativity that He allows us to emulate.
And I am thankful as a child of God that my fellow creatures – all of us – whether through space missions or a sport-shirt selection, may remain humble. Servants knowing our places in the universe. We don’t have to be rocket scientists to be thankful for that.
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Human achievements. Creativity. Mysteries of the universe. Let us give thanks this week, by resting upon sincere prayers of gratitude. Also I nominate on oratorio by Franz Josef Haydn, “The Creation.” An amazing work of profound spirituality. Haydn is remembered for his symphonies, string quartets, and chamber works, but seldom for his choral, religious, and oratorical work. “The Creation” is a masterful account of the Genesis story. This video (Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood, dir.; performed in English) is a work of art in itself, with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a magnificent cathedral… and the camera examining every corner of the cathedral’s design and decorations, and amazing, amazing videos of nature’s glories – God’s glories!
Click: The Creation by Josef Haydn