Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Hints and traits

We are a culture of swoosh and glitter. It takes a blockbuster to gain our attention. Super-bowls. Tsunamis. Colassal acts of terrorism. We sit transfixed by our televisions waiting for the next megaevent.

Meanwhile, nature whispers sweet nothings and there is too much background noise to hear.

Since lyra drew our attention to Comet Pojmanski, I've been up at 4:30 AM, onto the terrace with my spotting scope. Hazy clouds in the eastern sky the first two mornings. Then, yesterday, there it was, a faint smudge on the windowpane of night. With sublime discretion, Pojmanski sails across the deep, trailing a wake of fairy dust.

The 19th-century naturalist John Burroughs said that "the good observer of nature exists in fragments, a trait here and a trait there." And again, "one secret of success in observing nature is [a] capacity to take a hint." Looking for Pojmanski was a matter of hints and traits.

What we saw was the story of our beginnings. Comets are the stuff of which the solar system was born, preserved in the deep-freeze of the trans-Plutonic realm. Volatile compounds. Carbon-based molecules. Amino acids. Some scientists believe these building blocks of life were rained down upon the Earth by comets in the early eons of the solar system, 4 billion years ago. A few scinetists have suggested that life might have come to our planet on a comet, as primitive microorganisms.

Watching Comet Pojmanski, we are witness to the insipient glow of life in the dark abyss of the galaxies.

When night's faint lights revealed themselves to Burroughs, his thoughts, he wrote, went "like a lightning flash" into the abyss, and then the veil was drawn again. It was just as well, he said, to have such faint and fleeting revelations of the deep night: "To have it ever present with one in all its naked grandeur would perhaps be more than we could bear."