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Category: Big Picture

Nemesis
Somewhere out there, there is a comet with our name on it. Right now it’s hanging out in the Oort cloud, far beyond Pluto, where it’s hobnobbing with the billions of other comets. The time will come, however, when complex gravitational forces will nudge the rocky ice ball out of its position. It will then begin, as so many of its companions have, its long, curving trajectory toward the sun — except that this one will be heading directly at planet earth.

This should be a cause for concern. The last time something really big hit the earth, all the dinosaurs died. When the next big thing hits, some other dominant, pain-in-the-ass creatures will probably disappear. In case you’re wondering, that’ll be us, dude.

The last such collision, as it is generally agreed, occurred 60 million years ago when an asteroid smacked into the Yucatan. It kicked up so much crud that the sun was blotted out for years. That was long enough to lop off the top of the food chain and set up the steady rise of the hairless apes to the top spot. And now here we sit — a moving target, no doubt, but you can count on the universe to keep trying to knock us off our perch.

Asteroid strikes like the one that offed the dinos are more common than comets, of course, but getting whacked by a comet is a whole other level of disaster. The Yucatan asteroid, assuming it was typical, probably hit Earth traveling about 40,000 miles per hour. A comet would likely be going around 120,000 m.p.h. If you’re a bacterium buried deep in the earth’s crust you might walk away from such a collision without a scratch. The rest of us are toast.

The thought of such a cataclysmic event might be too horrible for you to imagine, but wait around for a year and a half and you may not have to imagine it. October 19, 2014 — that’s when comet C/2013 A1 passes directly through Mars’ orbit and may (or may not) clobber the red planet. If it hits, we’ll all have an example of the awful violence of the cosmos to study and ponder. The music of the spheres will be transformed for a time into a heavy metal rock concert.

We were given a similar opportunity in 1993 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy (the celestial body formerly known as comet D/1993 F2) collided with Jupiter. That was certainly a violent event, but it’s hard to identify with the damage done to a gas giant like Jupiter. Astronomers tell us that the scars left by the impact were truly horrendous, but the concept of damage to a huge ball of hydrogen was somewhat difficult to grasp. Mars is a different story. It’s somewhat smaller than Earth but just as solid. What’s more, it’s right next door; we’d have the best seats in the house.

I have mixed feelings about this hypothetical encounter. For starters, I have nothing against Mars. Some astronomers point to evidence that it may, in fact, have been the source of life on Earth. Under their theory, bits of life on Mars were dislodged by another cosmic impact long ago and spattered across the surface of this planet; we are the descendants of those splatters. In a way, then, Mars is home, and I’d hate to see anything bad happen to it. There is also a possibility that some form of life still exists there, and I don’t wish any harm to befall any of my relatives, no matter how distant.

Still, it would be a hell of a show. If you like explosions, you’d love the mayhem of this interplanetary train wreck. Waves of destruction and chaos would spread across the Martian globe, changing the face of the planet forever. Some think the climate will become warmer. Water could flow again. It might even become habitable.

All fantasy, of course, but we can be sure of this: some very big changes would come to our neighbor, and the event would provide one big celestial object lesson about what could happen to us once the comet with our name on it finally comes calling. Maybe the sight of it would shock us into a heightened awareness of how wondrous and precious and fragile our own planet is. Perhaps we’d be moved to change the trajectory of our lives here and stop ourselves from poisoning our own nest. At the very least, it might persuade us to work on our defenses against a similar cataclysm. The destruction of Mars, then, might help save the earth, and that would be a good thing.

In the end, though, I don’t want any of this to happen. I want comet C/2013 A1 to sail safely past Mars, crack the whip around Sol, and head back to the Oort cloud. I want Earth to plod on without needing an object lesson and simply do the right thing because it makes sense. I want the music of the spheres to play sweetly on, uninterrupted by the awful cacophony of violent, wrenching change. I want to be left alone and to live in peace.

The universe, I know, has other ideas. It has comets with my name on them, and asteroids, and earthquakes, and tornadoes, and Land Rovers driven by texting teens. If it isn’t one thing, it’s a whole bunch of things. No matter what happens to Mars, I’m sticking with the same game plan: keep my head down, my eyes open, and try not to do anything stupid.
Q & A
If you came here looking for answers, then you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t have any answers; unless, that is, you will accept questions as answers.

Let me explain. According to my personal philosophy, the path to wisdom is traveled not by seeking answers but by asking questions. If you start getting solid answers to those questions, then your questions are not good enough, and you must find better ones. Answers aren’t what you’re looking for at all, according to this view, but rather the enlightenment provided by diligently seeking those answers.

I admit that this philosophy is strictly of the dime store Zen variety, but at this point, it’s all I’ve got. I continue to go with it even though I recognize it as a cop out. It tries to finesse my humblebrag about not having answers but only killer questions, but I can’t fool me. I’m really just looking for answers.

Furthermore, the path to wisdom is proving to be a long one, and it seems to get longer every day. In fact, I’m not even on the path; I’m on some kind of frontage road, I think. Sometimes I can almost hear the hum of the traffic on the wisdom Interstate, but I’ll be damned if I can find an on-ramp.

At this point, all I can do is trust the system and keep searching for better questions. It may be a vain search, but as I have said, it’s the only theory I’ve got. That’s why I’m putting out the call right now. I need questions — good questions. Yes, I’m talking to you — help me find my way to the wisdom Interstate.

And please don’t come at me with this “Why am I here?” stuff or the old “Who am I?” and “What is the meaning of life?” chestnuts. I’ve never had much use for that kind of me-centered cornballery. I want new, pithy, stunningly fundamental questions — or nothing at all.

And if you’re already on the Interstate, maybe even sailing along in the carpool lane, I’m especially hopeful of hearing from you. I’d be grateful for any wisdom you’d care to send my way.

Just make sure your answer is in the form of a question.
Pique Experience
There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Survivors” that pops up to the surface of my brainpan during moments of murderous frustration. I won’t go into the details of the plot; the tidbit I focus on is a simple confession that comes at the very end of the story.

The confessor is a Douwd, an immortal energy being with powers beyond mere human understanding. You know, the usual stuff. Anyway, he cops to Captain Picard that he did this really bad thing to some other aliens, the Husnock, who had killed his human girlfriend. He destroyed them all, he admits; not just the marauders, but every Husnock, everywhere in the universe — with a single thought.

Now, it should be said that the Husnock were bad. For the sake of this writing, let’s call them the worst aliens ever: cruel, violent, remorseless. So they definitely had it coming. Furthermore, no other life forms were harmed, just the Husnock. Still, to use your power to kill all of them in one terrible fit of pique is a sobering thought.

What if I could do that? What if I could respond to my own murderous frustration by killing all terrorists everywhere, or all despots, or all real genocidists? But then I think of that immortal energy being, with all his supersmarts and superethics, lugging around a conscience with 50 billion deaths on it, and I can feel the rage ebbing away. Truly, I am not wise enough to wield such power.

For just the gophers in my yard, though, I think I could handle it.
Help!
Here on Earth, life is sweet. Oh, there is plenty of suffering, to be sure. War, poverty, obsessive greed, and natural disasters all take their toll on humanity and other living things. On the whole, however, we are a caring species. We want to help; we try to reaffirm that life is not only sweet, but is also worth preserving for everyone.

Consider, however, star system 3C321. Two galaxies, orbiting one another, comprise the system. Each has a giant black hole at its center. Black holes are a little scary in general, but there’s nothing particularly alarming about such an arrangement.

The black hole in the larger galaxy, though, is sending out a monstrous jet of particles, X-rays, gamma rays, and other radiation. The jet is traveling nearly at the speed of light, out into the space around the galaxy. Even this phenomenon is not that unusual — except that this titanic bolt of destruction is slamming directly into the smaller galaxy!

The result, it is thought, is catastrophic. Tens of millions of stars will be affected. The wholesale destruction of planetary systems is taking place. Quadrillions of sentient life forms — many of them much smarter and nicer than we are — are being annihilated. And, if left unchecked, the obliteration will continue for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years.

And yet we stand by and do nothing!
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee