Once in a Lifetime


It sounds really magical, doesn’t it? “New Wisdom.” Thus, apparently, it’s coming just in time.

Of course, the real reason for the name is much less poetic:  the comet was first discovered on March 27, 2020, spotted by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, and in a world that loves acronyms, was dubbed “NEOWISE.” But don’t you think it’s just a little bit suspicious that something with such a hopeful name suddenly appears in the sky during a time of such turmoil? In other words – “Coincidence..? I think not.”

What are comets? It’s not a star with a tail (that would be Mickey Mouse). They’ve been described as “dirty iceballs,” “frozen dirtballs,” and “deep fried snowballs.” Technically, Comets are frozen leftovers from the formation of the solar system composed of dust, rock and ices. They range from a few miles to tens of miles wide, but as they orbit closer to the sun, they heat up and spew gases and dust into a glowing head that can be larger than a planet. This material forms a tail that stretches millions of miles. They swing back around in a timeframe that coincides with the size and trajectory of their orbit. But each time, they may have less and less gas to emit (think of a reeeeeeaaallly slowly melting snowball), and eventually (it may take centuries) we won’t see them at all, until they simply fade away, becoming just another unremarkable cosmic denizen of our infinite Universe.

But definitely one which is especially intriguing to Earthlings. Although there are over 3,600 known comets in our solar system, we only get to see a few of them, and only once in a while. Interestingly, throughout the centuries comets have been seen as both an omen of success (for example, confirming the deification of Julius Caesar upon his death) and a harbinger of disaster (in years where its appearance was accompanied, coincidentally, by natural or human-made disasters). Of course, before the Age of Enlightenment, people saw most phenomena that was unexplained as terrifying – a gift or curse from the gods and goddesses.

On August 30, 2019, a comet from outside our solar system was observed by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Crimea. This was only the second time an interstellar comet had ever been recorded. Comet 19 or C/2019 Q4 , as it is now known, made its closest approach to the sun on December 8, 2019, roughly coinciding with the first recorded human cases of COVID-19. Then NEOWISE shows up just as the Coronavirus once again began to pick up speed. What’s going on here?!?

If course, there are many factors driving the current plague, none of which having anything to do with either comet. Most of us are less superstitious than societies have been in times past, especially during the time of the first Great Plague (which also had its share of celestial shenanigans accompanying it), and we understand that.

Comets throughout history have been blamed for some of history’s darkest times. In Switzerland, Halley’s Comet was blamed for earthquakes, illnesses, red rain, and even the births of two-headed animals. The Romans recorded that a fiery comet marked the assassination of Julius Caesar, and another was blamed for the extreme bloodshed during the battle between Pompey and Caesar. In England, Halley’s Comet was blamed for bringing the Black Death. One very famous recording of a comet is the appearance of Halley’s Comet as a terrifying feature of the Bayeux Tapestry, which recorded the Norman Conquest in England in AD 1066. The Incas recorded that a comet foreshadowed Francisco Pizarro’s arrival just days before he brutally conquered them. Comets and disaster became so intertwined that Pope Calixtus III even excommunicated Halley’s Comet as an instrument of the devil. It was the affinity the Chinese possessed for meticulous record keeping that finally brought us to an (impressively early) understanding of the nature of comets. I was especially delighted to see that the cyclical nature of comets was noticed and noted on Chinese Oracle Bones! Read more here.

But modern civilizations are more sensible, right? Ummm… not necessarily. When Halley’s Comet made its appearance in 1910 (among other things, the subject of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song and children’s book “Halley Came to Jackson,” for fellow fans of Mary and/or Eudora Welty), all sorts of terrifying events and possibilities were attributed to the wondrous sight. These included the death of a King, the invasion of a country, floods, and even the possibility of the transpositioning of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and mass genocide caused by the emission of deadly cyanogen gas or prussic acid. Not all news was bad, as some enterprising (and mainly unscrupulous) American entrepreneurs capitalized on the situation by selling comet insurance and gas masks, using it in advertising their products and even marketing (useless, sugar) Anti-Comet Pills as “an elixir for escaping the wrath of the heavens.” But that was over a hundred years ago. We can’t be that naïve nowadays, right? Well, in 1995, the approach of comet Hale-Bopp was heralded by a rash of claims that the comet would be accompanied by a “dark” companion:  shadowed by a large spaceship four times the size of earth which was controlled by extra-terrestrial intelligence. Yes, I really did mean 1995.

Why do celestial phenomena, particularly comets, provoke such extreme reactions? Robert Kohlenberg, an associate professor of psychology, postulated at the time of Hale-Bopp: “Explanations of phenomena such as comets are ultimately appealing because they offer control and the possibility of protecting ourselves against possible harm. This is very reasonable and accounts for why we have science and also why some people come up with less than conventional ideas to explain phenomena. Everything is always answered in terms of what motivates us. In this case, the motivation is protection. If something is unknown, there is no conceivable way of dealing with it,” he adds.

So here we are, in the midst of a pandemic and of global upheaval, and what shows up but NEOWISE, a heretofore unknown celestial object – right on cue. Yet, aside from a few predictable crackpot theories, I haven’t been able to dig up many attempted correlations of the novel coronavirus and this heavenly visitor. Have we learned our lessons from the past? Graduated beyond harebrained theories about the unscientific origins of certain phenomena?

That’s obviously not true – we can see it all around us, in the news, on the internet, on Facebook and Twitter, in water-cooler conversations and on bumper stickers. But if I may use Kohlenberg’s motivation theory to put forth one of my own – there is SO much information out there, and an easy Google search is so certainly bound to turn up something that aligns with your own personal theory of explanation, that there is simply nothing left that needs an explanation beyond that in your own mind. Since we each have our own theory of what’s right, and can probably find at least one other person on the internet who agrees, no further research is necessary.

So, in today’s world, if you believe that NEOWISE is a dirty snowball passing close enough to the sun to let off some gassy steam, you’re right! If you believe that NEOWISE is an alien plot to destabilize our planet by sowing the clouds with a deadly virus that will disrupt our economy and cause a change in leadership – you’re right! All you have to do is click “search,” and you’ll find something someone wrote that will support your hypothesis. No need to make up a conspiracy – one already exists, bears out your preconceived notion, validates your position, and is at your fingertips.

So let me put forth my own harebrained theory of the appearance of our recent comet, “New Wisdom,” to add to the information cacophony:  the world right now is going to hell in a handbasket. We’re so polarized, so divided, that we can’t even agree on how (or whether) to keep one another safe anymore. The enemy? Us. Our friends? Those who agree with us. Everyone else? Screw ‘em. However, for a week or two in July, we looked to the heavens. We asked one another where to find this wonder in the skies. We “liked” one another’s blurry photos of the comet on Facebook. We talked about something we could all agree on – the comet was cool. We marveled together at the beauty of something that came from out of nowhere, not to sicken us or to pit us against one another, but to bring us together in fascination, joy and appreciation for that which we can’t control. Not a harbinger of doom, but a gift of hope – a pause in the chaos. A brief respite of bliss.

We look to the heavens, sigh and feel thankful for a thing of beauty that calmed us and gave us some happiness in common, if just for a few days. That’s one once in a lifetime event worth living for. And I hope to live to see more and more of them in the future.

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