[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: The Big Bang

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Wed Jul 6 00:29:03 UTC 2005

The Big Bang
New York Times Op-Ed, 5.7.3

    Boulder, Colo.

    THE future wasn't supposed to be like this. Not for space-age kids
    like me, growing up enchanted by the Apollo Moon landings and Arthur
    C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey." By now we should be living on the
    Moon and departing in marvelous ships for the outer solar system,
    while new technologies gradually make life back on Earth more
    bountiful and harmonious. Instead 2001 and the years since have been
    marked by terrorism and conflict. Starvation and environmental
    destruction have not been eradicated or even stemmed. We have, for
    now, lost the ability to send people to the Moon, let alone Jupiter
    and beyond, and, for many of us, the future is not as hopeful a place
    as it once seemed.

    Yet tomorrow, we should see one tiny part of Mr. Clarke's grand vision
    realized - through NASA's Deep Impact mission (an unfortunate echo of
    a less visionary film). The part of Mr. Clarke's vision I refer to is
    a small scene in "2001," halfway through the book, that didn't even
    make the movie. The Saturn-bound scientists, having rounded Mars and
    now approaching Jupiter, pass close by a small asteroid. They greet
    this rocky celestial nomad by shooting it with a slug of metal that
    explodes into the asteroid, leaving a new crater and a brief puff of
    vapor that soon vanishes into the void.

    This Sunday night, if all goes as planned, NASA will finally pull off
    this same stunt, firing a three-foot-wide 820-pound copper barrel
    directly into the path of a nine-mile-long, potato-shaped comet by the
    name of Tempel 1. The two will collide at 23,000 miles an hour while a
    mother craft photographs the action from what one hopes will be a safe
    distance, and sends the pictures home to us at the speed of light.

    Why? So we can watch what happens. We stand to learn a lot about
    impact cratering - one of the major forces that has shaped all the
    worlds of our solar system. We will also have the chance to peer into
    the newly formed crater and observe the ice and vapor blasted back
    into space, thereby learning what lies within this frigid little
    world. When I describe this mission to people outside the community of
    space scientists and enthusiasts, it receives mixed reactions. Some
    feel that this is a fine hello to a new world, blasting away at it
    just to see what happens, like greeting a stranger by shooting first
    and asking questions later. A lawsuit has even been filed in a Russian
    court by a 45-year-old mother of two in Moscow, demanding that the
    mission be called off on the basis of its environmental and spiritual,
    well, impact.

    This legal action seems even more certainly doomed than the spacecraft
    itself (which may miss its target). Yet perhaps it does epitomize the
    concerns of many who wonder why we would do such a thing. Aren't we
    going too far to satisfy our curiosity here, acting like cruel,
    senseless boys blowing up frogs for the fun of it?

    Um, no. This explosion is not going to hurt anyone or anything.

    Here's an analogy. You would be justifiably concerned if, in order to
    learn about shorelines, some scientist decided to dig up your favorite
    beach. But you wouldn't object if she took a few grains of sand to
    study. There are something like one trillion comets larger than one
    mile in diameter, several hundred for each human on Earth, in this
    solar system alone, and countless more in the wider universe. So even
    if we destroyed Tempel 1 entirely, we would not be making a dent in
    the cometary sandbox.

    What's more, this mission will not demolish the comet, alter its
    course, or otherwise affect the cosmic scheme. Comets collide with
    other celestial objects all the time. The only thing extraordinary
    about this particular impact is that we engineered it. Deep Impact
    will simply make one more small hole in an object that, like all
    planets large and small, has been repeatedly dinged by colliding space
    debris since our solar system's origin 4.6 billion years ago.

    It is those dusky beginnings that this experiment can illuminate.
    Beneath the dirty ice crust of a comet like Tempel 1 is material that
    has been in deep freeze since the birth of our solar system. Mixed
    into this timeless frozen treat are organic molecules like those that
    seeded the young Earth with raw materials for making life. This ice
    may hold some buried chapters of the story of our origin.

    As H. G. Wells, the Arthur C. Clarke of the paleoindustrial age, once
    wrote: "There is no way back into the past. The choice is the Universe
    - or nothing." It has been said that the dinosaurs ultimately got
    snuffed because they lacked a space program. Sooner or later a killer
    comet will again cross Earth's path, threatening all life. Only next
    time, armed with knowledge about comets and space engineering, life on
    Earth will have a fighting chance.

    Someday, some of our descendants may decide to declare independence
    from this planet, seeking a more perfect union with the cosmos from
    which we spring. If so, then our current, tentative efforts in space
    may carry evolutionary significance equal to life's first forays from
    the oceans onto land.

    Given the recent reckless talk from the Department of Defense about
    introducing offensive weapons into space, Deep Impact will probably be
    seen in some quarters as more evidence of American aggression.

    In reality, it is the opposite - a peaceful gift from our nation to
    the world. Deep Impact is pure exploration. In this sense, we have
    evolved. Unlike Apollo, which was meant in part as a cold war threat
    to the Russians, Deep Impact really is for all humankind: it could
    further our understanding of where we all came from.

    Of course, explosions are cool (when they aren't hurting anyone).
    They're also often quite beautiful. Why, after all, do we love to
    watch fireworks? The flash of Deep Impact exploding into Tempel 1 may
    be visible from Earth through telescopes (and even, just possibly, to
    the naked eye, but not from the Eastern United States) at 1:52 a.m.
    Eastern time on July 4, above the bright star Spica, and to the left
    of Jupiter. Public events, showing live images from the world's best
    telescopes and, 10 minutes later, the first pictures from Deep Impact
    itself, are planned at many science museums. If successful, first-ever
    images of the approaching comet, the brilliant impact, the new crater
    and the receding icy nucleus will be seen soon thereafter. The
    scientific analysis that reveals the true meaning will be slower in
    coming, but once it arrives, the knowledge will be here as long as we

    David Grinspoon, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research
    Institute, is the author of "Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of
    Alien Life."

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