Monday, March 31, 1997

Opinion: Our ignorance of eternity

Published in the Mountainview

There is in the heavens now a symbol of divine disapproval, a harbinger of doom, a messenger from the gods, a comet. Described by one astronomer on NBC's "Today" show as "an iceberg, twenty-three miles wide, hurtling through space, disintegrating," the Hale-Bopp Comet is now visible to the naked eye.

It is in the north-by-northwestern sky both in the morning and the evening, and will be visible at least through mid-April, if not later in that month. It will pass relatively close to Earth, within about 100 million miles. This is not as close as Halley's Comet came eleven years ago, but is closer than most comets come to our planet. Detected about two years ago by two astronomers (Hale and Bopp), working separately, it is bringing to us knowledge about the universe's very beginnings.

Comets are thought by astronomers to have been created at the moment of the Big Bang. Some of them, like the one whose crater was recently found off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, crashed into planets. Some have no doubt been sucked into stars, and others, like Halley’s, are in regular orbits which are predictable and observable. Hale-Bopp, on the other hand, is a survivor.

It has no known orbit, no explicable reason for coming into our solar system now (as opposed to sooner, or later), and will leave our solar system for parts of the universe we know nothing about. It is not expected to return for nearly 5,000 years, by the best predictions of Earth's scientists.

Comets have an odd place in human history. They have always been seen as messengers from other times, other places, other people. Even now, in the age of ultra-rational science, comets are fossils from the Big Bang, carrying clues to the origin of the universe. Centuries ago, comets drove icicles of fear into the hearts of peasants and academics alike. They were signs of certain doom, crop failures, unhappy gods (or God).

Many things feared long ago we now can explain and study intellectually. There is, however, sornethirig very deep about a comet. No matter their origins, or their chemical composition, the appearance and disappearance of comets throughout history has always reminded humans that there is something larger than this planet, even than this solar system. Whether we are the sole sentient beings in the universe or not, we cannot escape the reality of the immenseness of space.

Hale-Bopp, when it returns, if it ever does (a lot can happen in 5,000 years traveling all over the universe - just as Arthur Dent), will be the best-traveled physical body we know of. It will have gone to more places in the known and unknown universe than any space probe from any solar system. It will have reached distances beyond radio contact with Earth, beyond sight of places from which you could see the Sun.

We can explain a lot about Hale-Bopp, and describe it in meticulous detail. But we must always admit that there will always be things we do not know, and things we cannot explain. Comets remind us of this. They appear overhead, move through the visible heavens, and disappear. We know why this happens — gravity. We do not, though, know all of what it means, and we never will.

Comets are a sign of something we have come to truly fear these days: human ignorance, impotence, and insignificance. Hale-Bopp, as an unexpected and unpredictable heavenly body, forces us to confront what we do not know, what we cannot know, and accept that the universe (or the gods, or God) is larger than we are, here on Earth. We must deal with this fear of the unknown and remember that there will always be an unknown.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his First Inaugural Address, "The only thing to fear is fear itself." We often try to forget even that. Hale-Bopp, the oddly-named visitor from other worlds, other galaxies, and Beyond, signifies to us all that we must conquer fear, because we cannot dispel the cosmic ignorance from which fear comes, and to which we are, ultimately, doomed.