[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
By DAVID GRINSPOON
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,
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
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