Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Please Call Ahead. Don’t Just Drop In.

Steady economic growth, thus the time since World War II more or less across the globe, undergird social belief in the regularities of nature. Did the transition to a new millennium occasion a change in the mood? No sooner did year 1 get going than we had 9/11. And since then the times appear disordered, marked, not least, by a Great Recession that, while technically over, hasn’t tangibly passed yet. Is there something, ah, symbolical about the fact that the same event that toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Center also chewed a big piece from the Pentagon? That pattern will be shaped by the poets of a darker future into something compact and memorable as they look back. Here’s one reason why I’d love to have a time machine: I could zip ahead and bring back the myths that have reduced our glory to some fable reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

Got me thinking of the interplay between gradualism and catastrophism (say in geology, biology). The one represents an interminable period when nothing happens and the other the horrific events that come anyway in the course of which everything goes to hell. That nature offers both is evident—and in most periods (and in most periods gradualism is in the saddle)—catastrophic theories get marginalized at best. Thus in the formation of the solar system the nebular theory rules (see this longish post here), despite the fact that at punctuated intervals evidence of catastrophe forces a temporary pause in our ability to predict everything. Herewith two events and one discovery—all within the last century.

In 1908 an asteroid hit Siberia or, more precisely put, exploded close to the earth. This is known as the Tunguska Event. It affected an area of 830 square miles—which is greater than the combined land area of Dallas and Los Angeles. In 1980 the physicist (and Nobel Prize winner) Luis W. Alvarez, working with his son Walter, identified the site of an ancient impact where some object from space with a six-mile radius hit the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and, doing so, doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This is known as the Chicxulub crater. In 1993, a comet was observed colliding with Jupiter. It was named after its discoverers, Carolyn and Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy, the Shoemaker-Levy 9. That “9” indicates that this team had discovered nine periodic comets of which the one that plunged into Jupiter was the ninth. I remember watching this event on TV. The spot that this collision produced remained visible on the big planet’s surface for several months.

Such news are few and far between, to be sure, only noted with an edge of the attention and then forgotten again. But they signal that we live in a strange world where the regular laws—such as that recessionary drops should be followed by great uplifts of consumption—are sometimes interrupted by events that can—when they bring larger sorts of visitors to earth—change things for generations.

In these times of Gradualism, the asteroid belt that fills the space between Mars and Jupiter is said to be chunks of rocks that never actually managed to cohere enough to form a planet. But in other days astronomers once theorized that an entire planet had peacefully orbited in that region until another body had collided with it and caused it to explode. Now that would have been a right memorable event—no doubt visible even from the planet earth.

Such perspectives rise unbidden as I watch the frenzied exchanges in this election campaign.

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