OK, let’s see what happened this week:
The senate changed hands, US Weekly reports that Bruce Jenner is now free to live as a woman and … human beings just landed a probe on a comet.
Now, as a woman (at least according to lab results) who well remembers how time seemed to stand still when we first landed on the moon, I sincerely hoped that everyone would take a moment to savor how spectacular an event this is.
But they didn’t! Yes, it was given due coverage, meaning, a 7-minute segment by the national news, as well as bold headlines online, yet it seems to have simply bounced off our collective shoulders as we turn to look at a cover featuring Kim Kardashian balancing a champagne glass on her Gaffney Peach water-tower-of-a-bum.
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A couple of folks I know muttered, “Well, it was the Europeans that did it, so … ” So what? Just because NASA didn’t lead the way doesn’t make it less amazing, does it? And besides, an American was involved, I’ll have you know.
Tom Economou, now aged 77, is still a University of Chicago Enrico Fermi Institute scientist. And in 1994, Major Tom (no, not his rank, but who could resist) began planning an instrument for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to a comet. Which instrument did he successfully propose for the robotic lander called Philae? All together now (and there will be a test following, so I expect you to commit this to memory): the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer.
Doesn’t that sound wonderfully George Jetson?
“Jaaane! Get me off this crazy thing! And bring me my Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer!!”
The APXS, to those of us in the know (as well as those of us who enjoy “the google“) is the only instrument that can provide information about the elemental composition of the comet’s surface. And that’s important because according to the University of Chicago, these collections of dust and rocks that the Philae will gather after harpooning (yes, harpooning!) the comet with a couple of drills will deliver new insights into how our solar system evolved, and whether comet impacts helped form Earth’s oceans and brought us chemical precursors of life.
“Landing is tricky,” explained Tom, “because they have to release the lander at the right speed in the right direction and from some distance. If it’s a little bit off, it’s possible that you’ll miss the comet.”
No, Tom, that’s not “tricky,” that’s insanely difficult! Trying to merge onto I-85 during rush hour is “tricky.” Trying to tell your wife that you refuse to sit next to her neurotic sister during Thanksgiving is “tricky.” Landing a robot precisely on a comet is mind-blowing!
Shouldn’t we have had a day off for everyone to watch, as we all did in 1969, as a family? Shouldn’t school kids have had regular classes canceled so they could be corralled together during an assembly to appreciate the moment?
We didn’t. At least most of us didn’t. It’s as if we just take for granted that this sort of thing just happens. That there’s a group of scientists that can do anything, and actually, that’s not far off when you consider cloning and growing kidneys and livers and stuff from stem cells.
But I think we lose something tremendously valuable when we lose our sense of wonder. Where do we go, emotionally, when we consider the Grand Canyon just to be an erosion problem or the thought of viewing a solar eclipse to be yawn-provoking? What then could possibly strike our fancy or interest us? According to magazine sales and ratings, it’s Bruce Jenner’s hot pink fingernails and Kim’s own orbit-inducing rump.
Houston, we’ve got a problem. A big honkin’ problem.