A Hole in the Silence

In space, no one can hear you scream. Unless you’re a black hole, apparently.

File this one under “weird but true”: a few days ago, NASA released the sound of a black hole to the internet. More specifically, a low, unsettling moan that prompted one online listener to declare “Space is haunted.”

What in the name of George Lucas is going on here?

After all, most of us learned the same thing as kids: there’s no sound in space. Well, unless you live in the Star Wars universe, where fast things roar and big things rumble because it’s Just That Cool. I mean, what’s the point of a space battle if you can’t rock an entire movie theater with the blaster bolts and explosions, am I right?

But for a galaxy that’s not run by Industrial Light & Magic, we’re used to thinking of things as being spooky silent. No air to push. Therefore no sound waves. Right?

Well, it turns out we all should have paid better attention in science class. Because as often happens, what “everyone knows” isn’t quite the whole story.

This particular black hole, you see, is in the midst of the Perseus galaxy cluster. A star cluster has hot gas. Gas that can transmit sound. Not very much, not very well – NASA had to enhance this one like a 1980s rock concert, to present a sensation that’s normally 57 piano keyboards below our hearing range – but enough to make a faint impression.

I don’t know about you, but I find that weirdly hopeful.

Space gives a different perspective on things, both overwhelming and awe-inspiring. Earlier this year, when the first images came back from the Webb space telescope, it made some people feel small while others felt connected to something wonderful. (For the record, I’m in the latter camp.)

This touches something similar. Once again, it’s a wonder that most of us didn’t expect. Not a vast interstellar panorama but the smallest of whispers in a sea of silence. Waiting … but only if you know how to listen.

And sometimes that seems about as rare as a sound in space.

We’re not a patient people, by and large. So many of us feel the need to do something and do it now. One reason the early pandemic lockdowns were so unsettling, I suspect, is that for the first time a lot of us had to hold still … and had almost forgotten how to do it.

The thing is, it’s not hard to make an impression. Even a black hole in the middle of nowhere can do it. What’s harder is to step back and actually see beyond our own impressions and efforts. To experience and understand. To be.

How many things do we miss hearing because our head is filled with our own chatter?

How much do we ignore without knowing we’re missing something worthwhile? It might be as vast as a black hole … or as small as the person next to you.

Hear the silent. Listen for the impossible. Touch lightly. Once we’ve learned that, we’ll know that even a murmur can matter. That the acts we do take, however small they may seem, always leave something behind.

Give everything its space. Haunted or not.

That’s the hole lesson right there.

A Familiar Space

Don’t look now, but NASA is looking for people who can live away from human contact for an entire year.

Gee, I wonder who could possibly qualify?

OK, yes, they’re looking for potential space crew here – specifically, people who are ready to set up shop in a mock Martian habitat at Johnson Space Center. But once you peel away the specific (and strenuous) science and engineering requirements, the needs sound curiously familiar to anyone who faced down calendar year 2020.

Spending months on end with the same handful of faces? Check.

Working with limited resource availability and sudden unexpected emergencies? Check.

Planning for regular walks outside the home – pardon me, the habitat – and a whole lot of Netflix consumption to fill time after work? Check and Check.

Really, all that’s missing is a Zoom elementary school and regular Amazon deliveries and it’d feel just like home.

I know, it’s a serious study, not reality TV. They’re not just going to grab some Joe Average off the street, no matter how good a simulation of the Red Planet might sound in comparison to delta variants, wildfires and the latest breaking news stories about “The View.” NASA wants some lessons it can build on, and I hope it gets them.

Nonetheless, it’s one heck of a reminder. We really have been living on another planet lately, haven’t we?

We’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about isolation and its effect on the human psyche, an aspect of human psychology that was once mainly of use to submariners, astronauts and the crew of the USS Minnow.

We’ve had to be as alert as any astronaut about making safety and security a part of the daily routine. We learned how far away six feet really is in the grocery store, how long 20 seconds is at the bathroom sink, and just how many masks one wardrobe can hold.

And yes, we’ve been as tethered to electronic communication as any space traveler dreamed, with just a few differences in content. (“Hulu, we have a problem.”)

But in among it all, there’s one huge difference. (OK, there’s a lot of huge differences, but work with me on this.) There’s one shift in perspective that makes this particular ride one of the most challenging of them all.

Space colonists in training know when their mission ends.

Astronauts know their expected return date.

But in our case? That’s in our own hands. Ours, and our neighbors, and a lot of strangers we’ve never met.

That’s daunting.

It’s a little like those group projects we all endured in school. You can work like crazy to do everything right, but if someone on the team doesn’t take it seriously, it makes it that much harder for everyone else.

That doesn’t mean “give up.” Far from it. It does mean that even in these days of semi-demi-hemi-normality, we have to keep doing the work to make things better and encourage others to do the same. Getting the shots. Staying alert and taking precautions where we need to. Learning from what we’ve gone through and then applying the lessons, as surely as any experimental NASA team.

Because the last thing any of us wants to do is keep cycling through the 2020s hamster wheel.

Pandemics take time to resolve. They always have. And if we keep our eyes on where we’re going and how we get there, we can find our way through.

That would be out of this world.

Even by Johnson Space Center’s standards.

A World of Difference

Written Nov. 16, 2019

And now, to boldly go where everyone and their brother has gone before.

No, not the well-traveled corridors of the starship Enterprise – though this will take us to the final frontier. Namely, to the vicinity of Pluto, the frozen world with the simmering debate: is it a planet, a dwarf planet, or a really lost California skier?

For the head of NASA, it’s incredibly obvious.

“I am here to tell you, as the NASA Administrator, I believe Pluto should be a planet,” Jim Bridenstine said earlier this month to the International Astronautical Congress – as opposed to the International Astronomical Union, which demoted our distant neighbor to dwarf planet status 13 years ago, making grade-school textbooks around the world obsolete at a stroke.

If this sounds like a really weird thing to argue about – well, yeah. But the most passionate arguments can flare up over the smallest things. Daylight Saving Time. The “real name” of This-Sponsor-Here Stadium at Mile High. Heck, if you want to inflame a group of Star Wars fans for the next 40 minutes, just sidle up and ask them whether Han shot first.

In the case of the Pluto War, everyone’s got their official-sounding reasons, such as whether the planet “clears its orbit” (or whether any planet does), or the presence of moons or an atmosphere, or maybe even eventually whether there’s ever been an Elvis sighting there. All of which underscores the fact that “planet” is a really fuzzy concept – about as fuzzy as “continent.”

What’s that? Everyone knows what a continent is? Well, sort of. Some of us were taught in school that there were seven. Others learned that there were six, since Europe and Asia aren’t truly separated by anything but history. An alien from outer space might argue that there are four – the big American land mass, the big Europe/Africa/Asia land mass, plus Australia and Antarctica. And is Australia really the world’s smallest continent, or just its biggest island?

It’s a matter of perspective.

Debates like these are safely amusing because whoever wins, it doesn’t really change much. (Except for the textbook budget, of course.) But when they get so passionate, they can edge into a gray area where strongly-held opinion takes on the power of fact.

From there, it’s a short step to the genuinely dangerous area: the belief that facts are malleable. The idea that every fact is just someone’s opinion, and that if the facts disagree with what I think, then the facts must be wrong.

That’s not a funny debate at all.

It has consequences for human dignity. For law and justice. For anything that relies on reason and inquiry – which is to say, our ability to live side-by-side with each other at all. Anything becomes justifiable and correct if you get enough people to agree with you. Our history, past and present, has some very scary examples of that.

Granted, even our capacity for wishful thinking has limits. If you’re firmly convinced that you can fly, and you step off a 500-foot cliff, the physical universe will quickly disabuse your notions. (“See how quickly I flew downward?”)  But if we have to hit those walls, the ones where Captain Obvious gives us a dope slap, then we’re already in trouble.

As I’ve said many times, we all have a story. But our own stories aren’t the only ones that matter. We have to step away. To see the stories of others. To digest the facts that we don’t want to hear but that aren’t going away.

I know. Easy to say. Hard to do. But you have to acknowledge the need before you can start. And as a species, we need some perspective.

How much?

Well – I hear Pluto’s nice this time of year.

A Failure of Imagination

Once in a while, Missy and I will decide it’s time to roll. Literally.

We don’t break out the wheelchair too often. But when we’re headed for somewhere where the distances are too great or the durations too long to be easily handled by Missy’s uncertain balance, we’ll load her up. Most of the time, it’s great fun for us, especially when I put on bursts of speed or sudden swerves to get her laughing and cheering.

And then, there are the other times.

Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk rises, just a bit. Not enough to be noticed by a pedestrian. But enough to temporarily turn a small wheelchair into a stuck grocery cart, until I lean and lift to pop it over the seam in the pavement.

Sometimes we find a place where the sidewalk runs high and the nearest slope to get on or off is far away.

Sometimes we find places where the sidewalk ends. Not the beginning of a Shel Silverstein land of whimsy and enchantment, but where the sudden appearance of dirt, grass, or broken landscape in mid-block says “Oh, you wanted the other side of the street.”

When it happens, Missy growls. And I fume or sigh and look around.

For a moment, we’re not just anybody else. We’re living in someone else’s world. A someone who didn’t see us coming.

***

Of course, you don’t have to be disabled to have a walk made challenging. Sometimes you just have to be the wrong kind of astronaut.

Most of the country heard about a planned spacewalk a few days ago. It was supposed to be historic, the first NASA walk into the Great Beyond made by two female astronauts.

One of the women had to stay aboard the station instead. Why? Because there was only one medium-sized spacesuit ready for use. And both of them needed it.

Yes, getting to orbit was actually easier than getting out the door.

Funny. For a moment, I thought I heard a Missy growl.

***

In many ways, we’re an amazingly imaginative species. We’ve sent people to the moon, sent data around the world in an instant, brought superheroes and fantastic adventurers to life on the movie screen (even if we can’t always give them decent dialogue). From biology to fashion, we constantly push back the borders on every side.

But in other ways, we can be just as amazingly limited.

Ask a left-hander who’s ever had to use an old-style school desk or a random pair of scissors.

Ask someone who’s 6’4” walking through a building made when the average male height was 5’6”.

Ask the 9-year-old girl last year who found that the basketball shoes she was excited about had labeled all the smaller sizes as “boys.”

I’m sure many of us could add to the list of examples, from the seemingly trivial to the potentially life-threatening. Usually not from active malice, but because “we never thought of that.”

It’s so easy to do. We get used to a type, so much so that we stop seeing it.

And then the assumption gets challenged. And everyone gets to do a double take.

It affects the things we make and the stories we tell (and who gets to be the hero in them). It  affects how we interact with the world, and with each other. It affects whether we even see that there’s an “other” at all.

It’s where imagination meets empathy. And in that place, we not only remember that other people matter, but try to envision what “mattering” means. Beyond our own race, gender, level of ability, or anything else.

We’ll screw up. It’s inevitable. We’re human. But if we’re making the effort to see, to learn, to understand, to put ourselves in the place of another – just maybe our vision wont be so nearsighted, so often.

The more we can do that, the more easily we can all roll along.

Right, Missy?

Inner Space

I’ll admit it. Cleaning our closets can be a bit of an adventure. It’s like an archaeological dig with clothing mixed in, where anything can pop up and often does. Forgotten games. Battered sneakers. Barely-legible notebooks that detail either the next great bestseller or last year’s Oscar winners.

I haven’t found any cameras from the moon landing, though. There, as in so many other ways, Neil Armstrong was in a class by himself.

In case you missed it – maybe your chores took a while, too – it seems that Armstrong’s widow Carol found an old bag while doing some closet-cleaning of her own. Inside were about 20 small pieces of gear that had gone to the moon with Armstrong. A mirror. Some tethers. An emergency wrench. And, yes, the camera used to record the Eagle’s final approach to the landing site.

Hey, some people take pens home from the office, right?

Now I know that to some folks, this probably sounds like an episode of Hoarders: The Final Frontier. But I can sympathize. It’s hard not to hang on to the small and not-so-small things that mark a memory.

In one of my own closets is an oversized map, one that would probably dominate any wall I tried to put it up on. The map depicts the after-effects of the 2013 flood, laying out the needed repairs in point-by-point detail. I used it for a story long ago, then put it away, planning to frame it someday.

These days, it’s become a frame, holding the larger pictures of my mind.

Other moments lie similarly “archived” from a lifetime of journalism and theatre. An aluminum can from an Emporia, Kan. factory that was never built. A spice jar of dry soil from a Garden City, Kan. “dirt collector” I interviewed. A sheaf of parodies, written for theatre cast parties so we could all laugh at our trials and triumphs.

Sure, it’s easy to accumulate stuff. I do it without even trying. (Just ask Heather.) But these are the things that go beyond mere stuff, the pieces that become memory in a tangible form. Where simply holding them and looking at them can bring back a moment, an event, a face.

You’ve got one somewhere. We all do. Maybe more than one.

And each one is the doorway to a journey of our own. Inward, not outward. Through time, not space.

But in that moment of rediscovery after a long absence, it can feel like the Eagle landing all over again.

It gives me a little comfort to know that Armstrong was the same way. Even in this cynical day and age, there’s still the temptation to lionize our heroes, to paper over the cracks and sand off the rough edges. It’s an unfortunate distancing, since it robs us of a certain kinship, a knowledge that, under different circumstances, it might have been any of us up there.

Well, probably not me. Not without some major improvements to my sense of direction. (“Houston, the Eagle has landed … somewhere.”) But you get the idea.

He was human. He gathered a few mementos in a bag, passed it off to NASA as “odds and ends” –you know, just keeping the clutter down – and took it home as a keepsake.

Which he then threw in the back of a closet and left for his wife to find. That, too, is very human.

Because of that, we’ve gained something neat. A few small artifacts. A chuckle at people being people. Maybe even a sense of wonder at how an ordinary moment can become unforgettable with just one forgotten bag.

And of course, the best closet-preservation excuse ever.

“I swear, honey, the Smithsonian’s going to want that bag someday. Look, I’ll take care of it later, all right?”

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.