Meteors illuminate the battle between art and science

MIKE LITTWIN

August 13, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

BETHANY, DEL. — Bethany, Del.-- I'm watching the meteor shower, which looks like a series of tiny rockets, possibly launched by aliens, flying across the night sky.

I'm watching and I'm thinking how primitive folk, on a night much like this, would have invented gods and legends in an attempt to explain the unexplainable.

As we know, they came up with Thor and Zeus and, finally, Rush Limbaugh.

They also found animal figures formed by the stars, although, surprisingly, over the many thousands of years of man, nobody ever quite saw a rhino constellation. (Baltimore Rhinos? Is that a joke or what? Why not just call the new football team the Baltimore Grotesque, Plodding, Stupid Animals With Ugly Horns?)

You couldn't see the meteors back home, I'm told. You should have known that. You had to get out of town, away from the light pollution.

The way I understand it, you don't watch a meteor shower in a city any more than you'd order a hot pastrami on rye in Arkansas. Anyway, it rained.

But I'm lying on a perfect beach, staring up at a near perfect sky -- the clouds that blanketed much of the East Coast having somehow lifted here -- lighted only by the Milky Way and company. And I watch the show.

OK, it isn't everything the astronomers said it might be. Is this a surprise? We live in an era of reduced expectations.

A veteran of the mostly-no-show Halley's Comet, I wasn't anticipating end-of-the-world pyrotechnics. Besides, if I'd wanted real fireworks, I could have just watched the Tigers tee off on the Orioles.

Still, the show's not bad, even if it's more a meteor drizzle than a monsoon. There are nine of us on a blanket watching. Every minute or two, another meteor takes off, somebody points, everyone gasps, and then one of the kids asks me to pass the Doritos and the moment passes.

Fortunately, the moments keep coming, framed against countless stars. We sat there for about three hours. You forget how many stars there are. I can remember when I lived in Los Angeles, and, with the light and smog, you couldn't see any stars at all, unless they were driving BMWs.

And then you'd take an excursion a few hours into the desert, and it was like somebody had slapped a planetarium on top of you. It's not quite that dramatic here at the beach, but it's the best you can hope for in the megalopolis we call home.

For sure, there are more stars than you can count. And when a meteor breaks loose, its tail fizzling behind, it's hard not to feel in awe of nature's splendor, etc.

Except that I made the mistake of watching with my brother-in-law, Fred, who's a scientist.

So, when I tell the kids that a shooting star is made of fairy dust and you must make a wish as soon as you see one shooting across the sky or you'll turn into a goony bird, Mr. Science jumps up to explain that it's not a shooting star, but a meteor, and if you want to wish for something, buy a lottery ticket.

And then he has to tell us what a meteor actually is.

Get ready for this. It's a piece of rock that we see burning up as it enters the earth's atmosphere. That's romantic? That's Homeric? Zeus is angry, and so he throws a rock?

In the art-vs.-science debate, I definitely come down on the art side. But as I watch the meteors, I have one of those moments of panic that can happen when it's only you and the night sky.

I can do myth. I can do legend. But what if there were some kind of nuclear accident and I happened to be the only modern man left?

What would happen to science?

I can't make a toaster. I can barely make toast. There'd be no new CD players. No garbage disposal. No cable. Try to imagine a world without cable.

I don't know how electricity works. Do you? It goes through wires and, boom, you've got microwave popcorn. I can't even make fire unless there are matches and that easy-light charcoal.

Basically, all I can do that's of any use to anyone is recite all the words to "Sympathy for the Devil" and all the National League MVPs from 1950 to 1970.

But then the panic attack subsides. I'm back to being one -- well, one of nine -- with nature. And, as the meteors flash, I have the sure knowledge that at any time I can reach up and grab another handful of Doritos.

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