Russ Ringsak

The Comet From Space and These Microscopic Miracles

March 31, 2001

We're packing now for a short road trip to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana; four years ago we took a similar trip to that part of the country, to Muncie, and returned in time for a big comet, a full eclipse, a heavy snowfall, a gigantic flood, a scientific bombshell and a flock of cedar waxwings.

There was an astonishing sky show in March of '97. An eclipse of the moon in the southeastern sky and the Hale-Bopp comet in the north, the brightest natural object, besides the sun and moon, ever seen in the sky. An ancient missile of ice and rock, older than the earth, dropping toward the sun from trillions of miles out in the Oort Cloud, far beyond the planet Pluto, falling in an orbit that takes it within 85 million miles of the sun and then hurls it all the way back out. This time it's 123 million miles from us but they say next time around, 4210 years from now, it'll be closer. It's big, 25 miles in diameter, 30 times the volume of the one that knocked out the dinosaurs, and it's whipping along at 69 times the speed of sound. They say a direct hit would destroy all life on the planet and who could argue with that; it'd be like a .220 Swift hitting a watermelon, only way quicker. At 47,000 miles an hour, the melon would never know what hit it. And through the binoculars it does look dangerous, like a weapon looking for a target: a SCUD gone astray.

But wild as the comet is, the moon stole the show that night. Moving majestically into the shadow of Earth at 8:57, our elegant little pal slowly revealed itself as we seldom see it, a glassy crystalline globe, brilliant and cold, with a bright pure white beanie of light sitting on the upper left and an incredible translucent peach collar underneath; the light seemed to come from within. The broad curve of the earth passed over it from bottom to top and you expected the moon to be black in the shadow; instead it glowed with a light of its own. It has never looked so spherical and so transparent. Looked like a snapping turtle egg held up to a light.

There was a great loud honking among geese in the nearby darkness, unsettled by this strange change in the night. As the huge shadow began to slip from it around 11:30 the moon gave off a colorful bright halo, greenish grey near the surface morphing to a rust orange out at the edge. It was a grandly triumphant reappearance, and by 12:30 the moon was whole again and the comet was below the northern tree line. The show was over and we could all now go to bed, man and goose alike.

That morning there had been a flock of cedar waxwings moving through the woods across the road, something not seen around there in a while, and the Monday following the eclipse we got hit with another heavy snowstorm, as if to guarantee, just in case we were getting too hopeful, that there would be a monster flood in a couple of weeks. And there was, the biggest one in the history of the Red River Valley, wiping out great sections of the city of Grand Forks. Snowfall in Fargo beat their record by two feet; there were drifts 15 and 20 feet high. (In the old days farmers would say you could walk out there and oil your windmill, and be careful not to trip over the power line.) It was a bad winter for owls and most everyone else, except the moles. The rodents could get really deep in the banks and the owls couldn't. Mole populations were at an all-time high.

And while all that was going on the Minnesota Twins were looking to opening day in a week, on April first, and politicians wrestled with the stadium issue.

And then came the news from Britain of the first cloning: a sheep named Dolly. Blindsided us, nobody expected it. And it was so easily and cleanly done, almost nothing to it: take a cell from an adult mammal, take a fertilized egg from another, replace the egg's DNA with the donor's DNA, implant the egg into a third mammal of the same species, and it starts growing. All these years of implanting fertilized livestock eggs has made that part of it as routine as cleaning teeth; for the DNA part, I don't think you can replace DNA in your kitchen but it might be less tricky than making teeny computer chips these days. Anyway, the end result is a delayed identical twin of the donor.

So we were suddenly in the first month of a whole new age, like the first month after the discovery of electricity or the first month after the splitting of the atom. We just had a new age of computers and information, and now here came another one. As the British scientist said, "the genie is out of the bottle." A friend put it in perspective: "Well, you know what this means... we ain't heard the last of Muddy Waters."

The last time that comet came by was 4000 years ago, when slaves were building incredibly large and precise pyramids with chisels and hammers, all to guarantee eternal life to royalty. This time around we've already been to the moon and we have cell phones, computers and clones: you gotta wonder what things'll be like the next time it passes. The world is a truly fantastic place; maybe by then both the Red Sox and the Cubs will have won the World Series, and who knows what players they'll be using. The Sox might even have Babe Ruth back.

It's an interesting juxtaposition, the comet from space and these microscopic miracles, these minute chemical and electrical transactions taking place inside us and inside our machines. Our ancestors looked to the skies for the answers to mysteries, for the future and the past, for the gods, and now we find the real unlocking of our treasures in the other direction, down inside the cells, into the very molecules. Sort of a cliché, like seeking truth and peace out there on the road to show business and then ultimately finding it by raising chickens in your back yard.

Anyway, I'm hoping we return from Indiana this time to an ordinary and uncomplicated springtime. Warm sunshine and light breezes. Buds on the trees, baseball, farmers out in the fields. I'm not even asking for cedar waxwings.

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