Comets to crescents

July 27, 1994|By Jonathan Schell

LAST WEEK, stories of outer space kept intruding on news of terrestrial events.

Wednesday was the anniversary of the first man on the moon, giving us a chance to relive that peculiarly anticlimactic historic moment, with its wooden, misspoken, potted prose ("That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"); its ungainly, hopping, white-suited figures; its inappropriate national flag seeming to stake a claim to a whole heavenly body, and its ensuing advertisements for Tang (its extraterrestrial popularity failed to rub off much on Earth).

The flag offered a clue to the obscure feeling of letdown. At their best, flags ripple or snap in the breeze, but this one hung lifelessly from a vertical bar appended to the top of the flagpole -- there being no breezes, of course, on the moon.

Most things of interest to human beings, it turned out, are here on Earth.

Meanwhile, Jupiter was under bombardment all week by fragments of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, whose largest piece, dully named "G," hit the planet on Monday, sending a fireball bigger than Earth into space from Jupiter.

The fragments, as large as mountains, were visibly disfiguring a planet -- a disturbing sight for a species that lives on a small one. One of the comet's namesakes, Eugene Shoemaker, said the event made him "think about global extinctions."

Naturally, people's thoughts turned to nuclear weapons -- the explosive devices that bring man closest to membership in the cosmic league. The combined arsenals of Earth -- powerful enough, possibly, to destroy our species -- have about a hundredth of the explosive power of the comet.

The other great difference between nuclear explosions and lTC comet bombardments, of course, is that the former are humanity's work -- they are a kind of comet that we throw at ourselves -- while any actual comets that strike the Earth would be acts of God.

Thinking about such extraplanetary events is a comparatively new experience. In the last 20 years we have gradually been learning to lift our gaze beyond mere historical events, which have taken place roughly in the last 6,000 years, and to consider evolutionary events, which in recent times we have been radically disturbing through human intervention in the ecosphere.

It's an exercise that requires us to think not in mere centuries but in hundreds of millions of years. Now events in space -- cosmic events, if you will -- invite us to enlarge our frame of reference by yet another order of magnitude.

As it happens, we recently had an opportunity closer to home to reflect on heavenly happenstance. The event was not a 6 million-megaton explosion but only the entirely peaceful eclipse of the sun by the day-moon. It was the gentlest of demonstrations of universal forces.

Here in New York, a light unlike any other -- thin, tea-colored -- descended, in a twilight at noon.

The most striking effect of the eclipse, however, was one that happened not to have been much mentioned in the various advisories before the fact. This was the transformation of shadows.

Any number of articles had mentioned that if you let the sun pass through a pin-hole in a piece of cardboard, a crescent of light in a paler circle would appear on the ground.

What they did not mention was that ordinary foliage would create innumerable similar tiny apertures, and that each would cast the circle and crescent on the ground. Suddenly, the shadow of every tree in the city became a peacock tail of light and dark.

For some reason, reflections from glass, including the windows of office-buildings, cast the same pattern -- a kind of insignia of the eclipse -- on streets everywhere throughout the city.

Heavenly bodies had crossed paths, and on earth we experienced a moment of strange beauty, edged by holy terror.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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