Our Place in the Universe

The hour before sunrise I find best for writing. Roll out of bed, shrug into a cardigan, stumble to the kitchen to light the kettle—give or take a quarter hour, I'll be at my desk by five, one hand clutching a hot cup of tea, the other tapping a mechanical pencil or, more often in the last year or so as the technology has grown familiar, waggling the trackpoint of a laptop, while the cold and the quiet and the black mirror of the window await the dance of words.

One morning last March my routine was interrupted. My husband, who has his own early ritual, called out in what can only be described as panic, though hushed enough not to wake our son. Halfway to the kitchen I hurried back.

galaxy in space

The night before he had stayed up late, I knew, mesmerized by an article in The New Yorker. "Is This the End?" by Timothy Ferris told of the cometwatchers: scientists who look for motion among the stars and plot the thing's trajectory wondering, more often than we might hope, will it hit the Earth? Will we go the way of the dinosaurs? Is this one the herald of our End?

My husband stood at the window, chilly in only boxer shorts, his mouth ajar. "Look!"

Through the lace of trees was a bright fuzzy light. "It's the comet," I said.

"The comet? You've heard about this comet?"

"Yeah. A professor at Behrend's been watching it for a while now."

"Oh." He picked a t-shirt off the floor. This wasn't the End.

We had to wait until our eight-year-old awoke to put a name to it: Hale-Bopp. He'd read about it in his National Geographic World magazine. He was unimpressed. Later, when the comet's evening appearance coincided with his reading hour, he refused to leave his book to take a look. He'd seen Comet Hyakutake last year, don't forget. Comets were pretty common, weren't they Mom?

I, on the other hand, would veer off the highway as I drove home in the dusk, eyes fixed on that more-than-star above the mountains.

In the last week of classes Penn State's student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, ran a story about Hale-Bopp. "Everyone should make an effort to see it," said astronomy professor Daniel Weedman.

I pondered that plaintive remark: make an effort. In Shakespeare's day, such a comet would have shaken the world, intruded upon everyone like a prying eye, struck at our sense of our place in the cosmos. Now bright lights in the sky were nothing. Satellites, planes, even space junk interrupt the fixed pattern of stars, itself faded to mere backdrop. Now what it takes to awaken self-reflection, to upset our smugness, our sense of self-importance, is planets.

Or are even they enough? When a Penn State professor found the first ones out-side our Solar System in 1991, he was compared to Copernicus proving the Earth went round the Sun. Last year, as extra-solar planets accumulated, a lecturer at another university dismissed this first find: "Do you count two burnt crisps as planets, or not?" When another Penn State professor found a planet last May, the PR pointed out it was too close to its sun: "not a likely place for life." Planets, alas, are looking commonplace. Now what it takes to make jaws drop, to make us stand cold and out of sorts before the window into space, is the prospect of someone staring back.

Last Updated September 01, 1997