I’ve been reading up on the Deep Impact mission to study the comet Tempel 1. You know, this is the sort of thing that gives me hope for the future, since it shows that humankind can be good at something besides killing each other or watching The Real American Bachelor Nanny or whatever the hell is on these days. We’ve built machines for the sole purpose of flying into space to study a faraway heavenly body—which, okay, in this case involved blowing a hole in said heavenly body, but my point remains. Deep Impact, and missions like it, were executed to increase our knowledge, and that’s what I find truly inspirational: they’re pushing back the frontiers of ignorance, making the world a little bit richer and stranger than it was before. How could anyone not be excited?
The beauty and complexity of the natural world, as revealed by science, are a constant source of awe and wonder to me. And they put things in a healthy perspective, I think: beautiful and complex as it is, this uncaring universe does not revolve around us. It’s big, and we’re still crawling on a little rocky planet orbiting an unremarkable star in a pretty average galaxy—a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot as far as space is concerned. It’s a humbling thought but not a depressing one, because a universe designed on a human scale would be a cheap and boring place indeed. Besides, in the end what does it matter? Even if we’re not special to the universe, we are special to each other. My ego doesn’t need any more than that.
And there’s one thing we do have that’s missing from all the comets in the Solar system. I think Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher, said it best:
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.
All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.
Pascal was wrong about a lot of things, but damn was he on the money about this. This is what separates us from the universe’s mindless forces, and from other animals: not just our minds, but what we choose to do with them. The quest to improve ourselves, both personally and collectively. Striving to understand instead of just believing.
Which is why I was so disgusted when I read that a Russian astrologer was suing NASA for sending the Impactor module to smash into Tempel 1, thereby disturbing the heavens and ruining her horoscopes. I still don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Assuming this woman is only a self-deluded twit and not a fraud (which seems more likely), the sheer self-centeredness and ignorance makes the blood boil. Are we supposed to believe she ever used Tempel 1 in her horoscopes, or even knew about it before it became news? Are we supposed to be sympathetic to her cheap self-absorbed fantasies of pure and pristine celestial objects that exist only for her and her clients? Are we supposed to be excited with her visions of a solar system simple enough that she can understand it? Face it: Tempel 1’s orbit has already been disrupted at least once when it passed a bit too close to Jupiter in 1881 (and probably once more since then, I’m thinking: its current orbital period is 5.5 years, down from 6.5 years after 1881). Images of Tempel 1 clearly show several impact craters. So Ms. Marina Bai can get a grip, then bite my skinny ass, followed by shutting the fuck up. If NASA’s scientific missions disturb the voodoo babble of parasite astrologers, that’s too damn bad. They’re so quick to use a planet (like Sedna) after it’s been discovered by real scientists, but oddly enough can’t make any astronomical predictions themselves.
Sadly, the astrology business will do just fine after Deep Impact. But in my less cynical moments I like to dream that one day (hopefully not too far in the future) all that will change. While astrologers sit locked in their delusions, drawing up pretty charts, mumbling only to each other and ignored by the general populace, it is the scientists, the thinkers, the real visionaries, who will reach out and touch the stars.