A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, August 24, 2012

You Are Here

NASA image

Last weekend I attended a wedding reception sporting a flying saucer on one bicep.   The groom was wearing a fuzzy cheetah-print fedora, so I wasn’t too worried that a red, green, and yellow temporary tattoo might seem over-flippant.  Nonetheless, when a friend joked that my personal UFO was the latest image from NASA’s rover, my laugh was a trace embarrassed.  

Google image search: Curiosity

Ok, I admit it.  For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been scouring the internet for new info from Mars.  My searching feels both juvenile and illicit, as if I’m clicking on Cosmo’s latest advice (“Ten Hot Tricks He’ll Never Tell You”).  Shouldn’t I be reading the real news?   You know, the stuff about wars and stock prices?   With the presidential election looming, bucketloads of impending environmental disasters, and the usual amount of unrest, bickering, and outright awfulness on our very own planet, and it seems irresponsible to obsess about what is happening on a reddish chunk of rock spinning 230 million kilometers from the sun.  Space exploration is, by definition, not a down-to-earth pursuit. It’s also an egregiously first-world hobby.  How much does it cost to blast a passel of laser-induced breakdown spectroscopes and X-ray spectrometers into the vastness?  Does anyone in Kinshasa or Dhaka know, or care?  

Thus, as I mingled in my sleeveless dress, I let everyone assume that my kids selected my embellishment from the 40 super-awesome options in the Toy Quest kit.  But in fact, the six-year-olds didn’t choose the spaceship.  I did.  .

Of course, I don’t really expect Curiosity to find little green men… or large mauve androgynous beings… or gymnasts who spiraled a bit too energetically on the high bar.   The Mars rover is just taking pictures of rocks, I remind myself.  It’s picking up bits of dirt, and maybe sampling some trace elements.  It’s merely a scientific instrument collecting data – and it’s probably not data that is even remotely connected to my own field of scientific endeavor, which requires atmospheres, oceans, and real-life creatures with cells and chlorophyll and DNA.  The Curiosity is a vastly expensive robot wandering around a frigid and almost airless wasteland.  How interesting could that be, really?

And yet… I can’t help myself.  Curiosity keeps getting the better of me.  I am a Mars voyeur.  No, it’s more pervasive than that.  I am a space-case.  I always have been.  And, as the ink on my arm conjured up memories of my 1970’s self, I began to suspect that my preoccupation hasn’t matured much.

When I was five or six – before space shuttles, and before I’d personally seen Star Wars (even if all the other kindergarteners got to see it when it was released) -- I told my mother that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.  She was supportive, but pragmatic.  She informed me that I couldn’t be an astronaut, because I didn’t have adequate eyesight to be a pilot of any kind.  Blind in one eye?  No Mars for you, kid.  

This set me back, but only a little.  I figured that if I couldn’t actually control the rockets, I could at least be a passenger -- in the near future, when trips to the moon became as commonplace as trips to the A&P.  And in the mean time, I could read up on everything out there, just in case someone suddenly needed info on the sulfurous volcanoes of Io. 

I absorbed facts about the solar system – not just the planets’ names, but their relative masses and composition, their moons, their orbits, and their charming idiosyncrasies.  Neptune’s magnetic field is tilted 59 degrees from its orbital axis!  The temperature on Mercury can reach 700 degrees Kelvin!  I was undeterred by the fact that not everyone seemed to find such tidbits riveting.  

At about the same time, I discovered science fiction.  Sarah stared in scorn at R is for Rocket and S is for Space as she checked out hefty volumes set in Civil War America or Victorian England.  I stopped trying to convince her to read my selections, but I didn’t stop bringing them home.  No one had introduced me to just-add-water- tattoos back then, but if they’d been available, I would probably have wanted to cover my whole body with rockets, robots, and amphibious-looking aliens.  I did the next best thing, and stuck glow-in-the-dark stars and planets to my bedroom ceiling.  
Voyagers 1 and 2 reached Jupiter when I was six, and Saturn when I was eight.  The known number of moons for each planet leaped dramatically, and Jupiter’s red spot was revealed to be a swirling storm vastly larger than Earth itself.  The fact that all this showed up on the news helped validate it as grown-up and important, even if my big sister rolled her eyes.  And then, in the fall of 1980, Cosmos hit PBS.  For thirteen glorious weeks, Carl Sagan enraptured me with his billions of stars. If the rings of Saturn were cool, then pulsars, nebulae, quasars, and black holes were mind-blowing.  

The real and the unreal sparked a Technicolor hodgepodge in my impressionable young mind.  I caught up on Star Wars and ET, with a little Trek thrown in.  Dad, my occasional astronomical accomplice, whisked me off to catch 2010.  By that far-distant year, I figured I would be pretty old – certainly old enough to travel to Jupiter and fend off robots with personality disorders.  “Open the pod bay doors, Hal…”  

By junior high, I had discovered Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, LeGuin, and other classics.  I dove into the related and sometimes overlapping fantasy genre, too.  Sentient plasma-beings?  Hobbits?  Bring them on!  Trashy sci-fi pulp and Tolkein knock-offs?  Why not?  Given that the other selections on the Young Adult shelves mostly seemed to be about teenagers who were either fashion-obsessed or drug-addicted, I was more than happy to remain in orbit. Science fiction allowed me to believe in entire galaxies in which acne did not exist and alien intelligences surpassed any I saw evidenced in the bowels of middle school.   I was the only girl in the Dungeons and Dragons club at the library, but the surplus of Y chromosomes didn’t stop me from attending.  There was lots of scope for the imagination.  Also, there were free Doritos.

But even as I imagined myself heroically patrolling the skies of Pern astride a golden telepathic dragon, I was even hungrier for truth.  Even the most rudimentary astrophysics granted me a view of reality that turned math and science into an orchestral crescendo of awe. I was both excited and saddened by the vastness of it all.  Sunlight reaching us from the edges of the cosmos, after millions of years of travel, was awe-inspiring.  But was the universe really beyond the scope of our oh-so-limited human reach and lifespans?  Could we really never travel faster than light?  Did our own clammy mass bind us to this time, this place?  I looked for loopholes, and made a valiant but incoherent attempt at a seventh grade Science Fair report about the Theory of Relativity.  I dreamed galactic dreams as I hit puberty.  The former was a lot more fun than the latter.

When I was in high school, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was published.  I was thrilled to receive a copy for Christmas.  Dad grinned.  “I told the guy at Book Review my daughter would like it,” he said.  “He tried to persuade me not to buy it for you.”  Well, how was the clerk to know that I was Sweet Sixteen and nerdy as all get-out?  I read it once quickly, and again, slowly.  

By college, I gained a small number of additional social skills.  I still chose Astronomy as an elective, and enjoyed the occasional literary wizard or troll, but I spent less time completely out of range of Ground Control.  Yes, there was the infamous Star Wars Trilogy in Puppets senior year, but that was more about hanging out with friends, grunting like a Wookie, and wearing the Millenium Falcon on my head than about pondering the space-time continuum.   

In the years that followed, my addiction to outer space became tempered to the level of occasional escapism.  Still, I was never entirely able to kick the habit.  On dark winter nights on the outskirts of Fairbanks, it’s easy to stare up at the Milky Way smeared across the sky until the unfathomable scale of it blurs my brain… or my blood begins to congeal in the -40 temperatures.

Star-gazing and aurora-watching are perfectly acceptable activities, of course.  But really, shouldn’t I have abandoned that little flicker of hope that one day SETI will sift a pattern – a glittering gem of radio waves – from the dissonance?  Shouldn’t I realize by now that space research is just a bunch of dry, dusty physics, not something set to Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra?  It’s 2012 now -- two years past the date by which I should have been able to travel to Jupiter.  Time still refuses to warp, I’m still blind in one eye, and Greyhound’s routes still don’t include Luna.  Even if I still take an academic interest in sub-atomic particles and solar spectra, shouldn’t I be beyond the stage of self-decorating with multicolored UFOs?  

A few days after last weekend’s wedding, I saw that the spaceship tattoo was disappearing from my arm.   Well, that’s good, I told myself.  Of course.  I mean, I should have scraped if off immediately.  Shouldn’t I? 
But just as my flying saucer was fading, a friend – a young-enough-to-be-my-kid friend, which is something everyone needs -- shared a quote.  It was a passage from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. “Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us…”  I was instantly swept back to 1980, and the heart-leaping splendor of Cosmos.  

It’s not childish.  And it’s not unimportant.  Thirty-two years ago, I would have chosen the same spaceship tattoo – which is a lot more than can be said for a lot of people with real tattoos.  And if something is that much a part of who I am, then I’m not going to let go of it -- not the stories, not the dreams, not the astonishing scientific truths pulled from a boggling array of possibilities.  

Yes, space travel is expensive, and complicated, and limited to a tiny scope of what is out there.  No, we aren’t going to discover sentient beings on the dry red soil of our neighbor-planet.  True, there are problems enough on our own world, and we need to invest time, money, and human ingenuity in solving them.  But that doesn’t mean we should forget who and what we are, here on our little blue dot.  “Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe…”

Tonight I’ll take a Brillo pad to what remains of my UFO, even as I scrub the horse off Lizzy and the dolphin off Molly.  Then I’ll pack up the lunch boxes, feed the dogs, check my email.  And after that?  Well, maybe I’ll pull a couple of old paperbacks off the shelves – something by Bradbury or Clarke.  I never did take those to Gulliver’s as trade-ins.  And maybe then I’ll check the news for the latest images from Mars. 

Google image search: Curiosity

Humans made Curiosity.  Curiosity makes us human.

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”
-- Carl Edward Sagan (9 November 1934 – 20 December 1996)