Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Walled Garden

In the syllabus to his fictitious Fundamental Astronomy class, Woody Allen wrote, “The sun, which is made of gas, can explode at any moment, sending our entire planetary system hurtling to destruction; students are advised what the average citizen can do in such a case.”

A reminder of just how small and vulnerable we are – or, at least, of how humungous and dangerous the rest of the universe can be – came in recent days as a meteor hundreds of metres wide hit Jupiter, leaving a hole the size of the Pacific Ocean in the massive planet’s atmosphere. Jupiter is about 318 times the size of Earth, so if that collision had happened here, it’s safe to say the Canadian National Exhibition wouldn’t open on time this summer.

An enormous outer space smash-up puts into context some of the trifling issues that come in for wide-eyed seriousness and spittle-flecked rage here on Earth, from bike lanes to recycle bins and, especially, politics (as the saying goes, all maniacs are local). Moreover, it reminds us how little we can control, or even predict, in the darkness that surrounds us.

A similar incident occurred in 1994, when pieces of the Shoemaker-Levy IX comet hit Jupiter, and astronomers supposed that such collisions only happened every few thousand years. It seems one of those Poindexters forgot to carry the remainder because a blink of an eye later, here we are again.

This is, incidentally, what Jupiter does – it takes the hit for the rest of us. Its immense gravity pulls in debris left over from the creation of the solar system (whether it’s called a “comet” or an “asteroid,” the upshot is it’s a great big rock that can ruin your lunch plans), keeping other planets safe – usually.

Columnist Jonah Goldberg notes that there are 1,000 near-Earth meteors more than a kilometre wide, adding, “Those are the ones that really leave a mark. Just ask the dinosaurs.”

If we missed one of these coming, it might be similar to how Obi-Wan Kenobi described the destruction of Alderon in Star Wars: Millions of voices screaming in terror and one nerd at a telescope saying, “Oops.”

Perhaps it’s just as well we have no sway over the solar system. The smartest person you’ve ever heard of cannot tell you with certainty what the weather will be like a week from Tuesday or who will win the Stanley Cup next year. People are idiots, even the geniuses. Just as William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather have been governed by the first 400 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard, I’d rather take my chances in a cosmic shooting gallery than surrender control of the universe to the most brilliant man who ever lived.

But there is comfort to be taken in the symphony of the cosmos. Jupiter plays its role as giant protector of smaller planets, giving us the luxury of eons to grow and learn, creating civilizations, countries, Pilates and fondue. In a dangerous galaxy, Earth is an oasis of existence, a walled garden, guarded by the heavens’ design – and that is an encouraging thought.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.