Friday, June 4, 2010

Outer Space

Back when I had a real job, I was working briefly at a bloated plutocratic international corporation, doing work on Inventory. I knew the company had a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, so I looked it up. The computerized inventory system required that the location of all the physical assets be listed. In other words, the system required that the satellite have an address. Some data processing clerk, to get around this requirement, listed the satellite's address as "Outer Space".

A couple of years ago, I was watching the local nightly news. Mars had just passed through its closest approach to Earth, in something like a once in seven thousand years event.

The meteorologist was slotted to deliver this bit of news about Mars. The producer picked him, I suppose, because Mars is up in the sky, where the weather is.

So, once he'd done his bit, there was an awkward pause. (Let's face it, news people are not exactly deep thinkers. So I suppose everyone's brain was churning trying to think of something to say without seeming a completely ignorant buffoon).

Finally, the anchorman (Ron Magers) quipped "Well, at least there was no invasion".

Ron Magers is a funny guy.

I laughed, but then I was given to pause. I had a little thrill of fear. It was a good thrill of fear. I think I was hit with the impression of all that dark deep space out there. Outer Space. You know, we really don't know what's out there.

When I was a kid, the planets were all just points of light. Or maybe a fudgey smudge of a circle. Mars just might have life on it. And Venus was thought to possibly be a swamp planet, with maybe dinosaurs and blonde Amazons living on it. This was a time when a Three Stooges in Orbit movie held equal scientific weight with actual scientific knowledge.

Times have changed. Those points of light have, through our intrepid robotic probes, become whole worlds. Vast worlds. And there have been people on one of them. I remember that. I remember a nice summer evening, looking up at the Moon, and saying "There's people up there!"

So, maybe we've become a bit jaded. We have pictures of these places, and think we know all about them ("we" being the public, scientists can never get enough information). It's kind of like seeing pictures of all the major sites in Paris, and thinking we know all about Paris.

But we don't. It's a big scary place out there, even just in our own Solar System.

But I think it's a good scary.

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