Tuesday, August 26, 2003

A humbling perspective

Red alert: Mars approaches

Humankind has always looked upward into the unreachable heavens with a mixture of fascination and dread, seeking clues to our past - and hints about our fate. So it comes as little surprise that Mars, which on Wednesday will make its closest approach to Earth in 59,619 years, is at the center of attention this week.

Stores are reporting telescope shortages as Mars-gazers seek a closer look. We habitually get caught up in each landmark (or is it skymark?) celestial event - a total eclipse, a meteor shower, a planetary alignment. We want to have witnessed it, to be part of its history, as if a bit of the cosmos' eternal nature will rub off on us - even though it has no real impact on our daily lives. According to NASA, if the Sun's tidal effect on Earth is indexed at 1.0, then the moon's is 2.21 and Mars' is a minuscule 0.0000023.

But Mars has always held a special fascination, stemming from its blood-red mythic association with war, and from the notion, perpetuated by a 19th century Italian astronomer's description mistranslated as "canals," that intelligent life might exist there - hence generations of sci-fi "Martians." Now we'll settle for evidence of dormant microbes that emerge when the ice thaws every 40,000 years or so. In the next few years, a new generation of Mars probes will seek liquid water on its surface.

But for now, we simply watch, and the watching takes us beyond ourselves and puts into perspective the "importance" of our little corner of the universe. It may be a vain hope, but somehow if those around the world who busy themselves oppressing or slaughtering their neighbors would stop for a few moments and look upward, that perspective might make a humbling difference.

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A humbling perspective
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