The Astronomical Writing Challenge, Part 2 (Finally)


It’s that time of year again: the day before the anniversary we’d all like to forget. Technically, today’s the day that Jonno and I fled, just after midnight, in a hand-me-down SUV stuffed with dogs and luggage and, for some reason, my Xbox. None of us were really in our right minds.

But I think I’ve written plenty about all that. At least for now. Maybe the fifth anniversary will bring a willingness to look back in apathy. Today I need to mention something else — something else that happened during the week that Everything Changed.

At the end of August 2005, I was reading a book entitled The Last Three minutes, which was, appropriately enough, a story of annihilation. Specifically, it was a scientific treatise about the end of the universe and what that might look like. And lodged somewhere in all that dense text were these two pretty glorious sentences:

Life-giving carbon and oxygen, the gold in our banks, the lead sheeting on our roofs, the uranium rods of our nuclear reactors–all owe their terrestrial presence to the death throes of stars that vanished well before our sun existed. It is an arresting thought that the very stuff of our bodies is composed of the nuclear ash of long-dead stars.

In point of fact, I’d heard that all before August 2005, but never stated quite so eloquently, and it gave me pause. How much awful poetry have such facts generated? How many authors have swooned at the thought that humanity is nothing but stardust? (Answer: many.) And then I went one step further: I asked you people to stun me with star-inspired dreck. Of course, I offered some compensation to the winner — I believe there were promises of well-worn jockstraps and second-hand ashtrays, but it’s all a little fuzzy now.

Anyway, for obvious reasons, I never got around to picking a winner. But I’ve been meaning to post my four favorite submissions for lo these four years. And here they are.

If you wrote one of ’em, drop me a line. My jockstrap offer still stands, although you’re welcome to suggest another gift — a curling iron (I have no use for such things), Fleshbot swag (it still arrives now and then), a handshake. I won’t be offended.

* * * * *

It’s true that you are
not a beautiful snowflake.
You are a dead star.

[Brevity is a virtue]

* * * * *

Judy flung open Stacy’s garden gate with an exuberance she’d not felt in months. With chest a’heave Judy looked down at the crouched and sweating Stacy. Stacy wiped away the moisture from her brow with the back of her gloved hand, looked up at Judy and sweetly gasped “what”?.

Judy blurted out “Stacy, I just went on line and found the solution for our problem. I have it on good authority that human male urine, sprayed liberally around the perimeter of our property, will deter raccoons!”

With that revelation, the two neighbors rejoiced, “high fived” and decided to have a party.

[Just as random and vacuous as the quote. Love it.]

* * * *

Poem engraved on a photograph frame, decorated with figurine of young girl in nightdress, kneeling while gazing out a window and looking at a star, with hands clasped in prayer. Frame holds wedding photo.

When I was just a little girl
Each night I’d scan the sky
And wish upon the first bright star
To meet a special guy
And then I’d pray that my dear Father
Looking from above
Would guide that one bright special star
To shine upon my love.
I spent my days, searching,
Waiting for the star
To send my soul mate to me
No matter from how far.
And then I learned that by God’s grace
And Intelligent Design,
We are made from the very stars
That joined your life to mine.
And now I look into your eyes
So filled with honest love
And know that our union has
Blessings from above.
In my youth I wished on stars
But now I see the light
My love has been beside me
From that first wish, that first night.

[I love that she gives the “poem” a setting. Elizabeth commented that after she read my post, she vomited this up in under ten minutes. And I believe her.]

* * * * *

Coda: Re-thinking extinction, catastrophe, quietus

On 13 August 2002, the New York Times published a poignant piece by John Nobel Wilford about the Voyager spacecrafts. The Voyager expeditions, launched more than 25 years ago to explore the outer solar system, had just reached the boundary between the heliosphere, the “bubble in space produced by the solar wind” and the beginnings of deep space. The article ends with a description of both craft taking one last picture of our solar system. “Then both craft turned their attention forward, to the heliosphere and beyond. The Voyagers are expected to survive millions of years of interstellar travel, steadfast as ever. But silent, their computers and radios dead and the Sun receding into cosmic insignificance, the two spacecraft will have long since lost touch with their makers and the home they left behind in 1977.”

The article put into motion a number of emotions about humanity and its machines, but the final image of the Voyagers’ silent running brought home to me something I feel very deeply. Yes, Reader, Humans will, like all creatures, become extinct. That isn’t something to be scared about, or sad about—it’s simply something that is—and a necessary part of Something Else’s becoming. It is this Final Gesture that is an image defines for me a word that I love: quietus.

Quietus: “a period of inactivity, final discharge or acquittance (as from debt or obligation), final settlement, removal from or extinction of activity, something that produces a cessation of activity, something that quiets or represses.”

If one believes that humans will live on through their representations, then the existence of a Golden Record on each of the Voyager will carry us out into the Universe, speaking to the Stars, bringing new Life to the Planets in the Beyond, ironically living onward, a Life in the dead metal of Human Endeavor.

Our Culture, Ultimate Life, Ultimate Quietus.

[Laudable for its optimism and its literalness. Also: I’m amused by the thought of Voyager crash-landing on some vaguely hospitable planet and the spacecraft’s Golden Record — which scientists and linguists spent many hours devising — being defaced and destroyed by some dumbass monkey-equivalent.]

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