Monday, November 17, 2014

The natural transcendent

Tom sends this composite image from the Rosetta spacecraft, as it flies alongside Comet 67P, 300 million miles from Earth. It shows the comet lander Philae drifting above the surface of the comet as it approaches landing and the footprint on the dusty surface where the lander bounced on touchdown. Interpretation here.

This is the sort of thing that gives Tom chills. Me too. Touchdown! Catching up with a two-mile-wide chunk of rock and ice after a 10-year journey around the solar system. Thrills. Chills. A breathtaking technological achievement.

But more than that. It is also a dazzling endorsement of the scientific way of knowing.
Many long years ago when our oldest three kids were young (Tom not yet born), we visited the museum in Bayeux, France, housing the famous tapestry. I pointed out to the kids the comet in the sky on the eve of the Battle of Hastings, which was taken to portend William of Normandy's victory over King Harold of England. The latin text reads "People marvel at the star." (Tom, BTW, saw the tapestry on a later occasion.)

Humanity was then in another time, a time of miracles. Knowledge came through divine revelation, holy books, authority and tradition. Nothing happened except by the will of God. The scientific way of knowing, invented essentially by the Alexandrian Greeks, was strangled in the cradle by more ancient ways of knowing, not least the rise of Christianity, not to be revived until centuries after Hastings. Even today, a millennium later, much of the world, including a sizable proportion of Americans, hold to the old ways of miraculous knowing and disdain science.

But can any of those older ways of knowing put a lander on a cometary nucleus 300 million miles away, a rocky snowball the size of Central Park?

The comet that appeared at the time of the Battle of Hastings was (we now know) Halley's Comet, which appears in Earth's skies every 75-76 years. I observed its most recent passage from Ayer's Rock in Australia, courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine, as scribe for their expedition. Not a sign or an omen, not a communication of God's favor or disfavor, but a subtle natural, law-abiding wonder that -- in that marvelous dark-sky context -- sent a -- dare I say it -- transcendent shiver up my spine.