A few of us met up last night to catch the NEOWISE comet. Huddled on that dimly lit sidewalk in the Age of COVID-19, we looked a nerdy, suspicious bunch. Three white guys and an Asian, binoculars in hand, face masks donned, wearing eyeglasses and practical cargo shorts. A board game could’ve broken out at that street corner.
I had rallied our quartet on the promise that the comet was worth the repeat outing. My pre-dawn sighting earlier that week was promising — a bleary-eyed, four a.m. search party walking quickly, desperate to find a dark patch in our too-bright midtown neighborhood, regrettably well-equipped now with modern LED street lamps. It was a race against the soft, pastel glow of the rising daylight, a curtain unveiling by the minute. Finally finding one, we then traced the night downwards away from the Goat Star, Capella — a quadruple-star system more than 40 light years away, but a guiding, gold dot to our eyes — and picked out the fuzzy orb that was comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). With our binoculars, its gossamer tail could be seen against the blue-tinged sunrise. It felt to me like a spotting tiny detail on an enormous ceiling fresco: a delicate brush stroke snuck in by the artist as a secret for others to discover, once every 6,766 years.
Last night held no such reward. Returning to that same dark patch, we fought against not only urban light pollution, but also that plague of the California interior: bad air quality, from summer grass fires, resurgent vehicle travel, and the increasingly frequent illicit fireworks. We did exactly as the astronomy websites had instructed, tracing downward from the constellation Ursa Major. And though NEOWISE was supposed to have grown in visibility over these few days, we couldn’t see it at all with the naked eye from our particular vantage point. I did very, very faintly make it out through my binoculars, flanked by Iota and Kappa Ursae Majoris — the front paws of the Mother Bear. But it wasn’t at all the “wow” moment I was hoping to share with my good friends.
I am not versed in astronomy. But planetarium visits form some of my earliest childhood memories, and I remember the feeling of my fingers turning the paper wheel of a planisphere that was bought for me. And as a sucker for myths and histories, any time I do have to look up a star or constellation, I become engrossed in these names and legends of antiquity — and sullen by the profound distances and existences of these far away worlds.
I say sullen, because of the persistent strife and the seemingly creeping pace of progress ailing our own world and existences. For all the beauty and art and knowledge we’ve created, there are people who won’t wear a simple face mask to help combat a devastating pandemic. There are entire subcultures in the United States and other countries unwilling to believe in the realities of this disease, whilst some nations have already ended their local epidemic — truly living in an enviable alternate reality where individual social responsibility is embraced to the benefit and health of all. Our own fuzzy ball in the heavens must indeed be a dim one to other eyes.
Humanity by nature seeks to make sense of patterns. When done with evidence gathering and methodical experimentation, we call it science. When done with imagination and spirituality, we call it storytelling and world-building. When done with selective ignorance and self-insulation, we need to call it dangerous.
The stars we sleep under provide a mirror for these three different ways of making sense of reality. Constellations themselves were two-dimensional interpretations of a multidimensional cosmos — assigned shapes, animals, gods, and other asterisms woven into our earliest cultures and theologies. But astronomic phenomena — the sudden appearance of comets, for one —were likewise twisted into false warnings, whether of apocalyptic hysteria and auspicious portents, or of uncertain astrologies. Over time and with new instruments and lenses, we finally discover that the stars making up these Mother Bears, Little Goats, and other patterns are not even close to one another in actuality: they are points of light that vary in deep distances across space and time, all in motion relative to one another.
The journey doesn’t end there. Now we are awakening to an Age of Acknowledgement, where our dominant scientific education — rooted in Eurocentric, Western views and constructs — must unlearn its short-sighted assumptions and racist biases to consider discoveries made long ago by other cultures. The rich traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples across our globe; the studies and record-keeping by ancient Chinese, Arabian, Mesopotamian, and African scholars. We should seek out the beauty and logic across all our schools of thought, and quarantine any dangerous limitations and prejudices within. We can test, reassess, and assemble these intersecting worldviews into a unified, human eye with which to see the stars, interpret the patterns within our world and others, and frame our place in the universe.
I hope humanity will be a little farther along — in another 6,776 years.