Saturday, March 12, 2011

"The Mighty Engines of Creation"

Impact of the comet Levy on Jupiter

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines

I'm not a scientist, and I'm not particularly good at science, but I really like watching science shows on the teevee. I certainly have my complaints about them. Frequently (though not always) they can be a little too glib in their effort to make science less intimidating.
In my 50 or so years of watching science shows on teevee, I've noticed how the conception of nature has changed drastically (along with production values on these shows). In my childhood, a patriarchal voice narrated a demonstration of how fundamentally orderly the universe was. Nature carried on with her peaceful processes uninterrupted. The occasional hurricane, volcano, and stellar explosion were simply reminders of the terrible powers that drove those processes.

Over the last 20 years, I've noticed that catastrophe plays a much bigger role in science shows, and I don't think it can be explained away by ratings competition. I seem to remember that this new way of looking at catastrophe and nature began when what was formerly considered a crackpot theory turned out to be true after all. That theory was the idea that the dinosaurs were wiped out by some kind of cosmic catastrophe like a comet or asteroid collision. I seem to remember that idea came out in the 1970s and was considered way out in left field at the time. And then in the late 1980s or early 1990s, evidence emerged suggesting that theory might be true after all in quantities of a usually rare metal created by meteor impact found in a single layer of sediment around the world. Then the discovery of the remains of a massive impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula confirmed that idea. Ever since, catastrophe's role in nature changed from aberration to integral part of the natural process. The asteroid that struck the earth and killed off the dinosaurs was part of the continuing process of the formation of the earth. Our planet, including our oceans, was created out of a continuing series of cosmic collisions.
The combination of gravity and proximity to the sun keeps the core of our planet molten and radioactive. The sun's gravitational pull keeps the molten mass that makes up the bulk of our planet always in motion. The entire world that we know and live in sits upon a thin cracked crust that rides on currents of molten rock, and is constantly being destroyed and renewed. Earthquakes and volcanoes are but the visible manifestations of that constant process of destruction and renewal.

No matter what our station in life whether king or beggar, we are all but mortal and vulnerable creatures who dwell on the unstable surface of a turbulent planet. Our survival or extinction is a matter of complete indifference to nature. The victims of nature's violence are not the objects of any wrath or fury. We are all simply in the way sometimes.
While our survival may not matter to nature, it certainly matters to us. We as individuals and societies take every reasonable measure to ensure our safety and survival in an uncertain world. And yet, some of us are better at it than others.

When I watch the catastrophe unfold in Japan, and I notice the Japanese struggling to survive and to cope with so vast a disaster, I remember our response to Hurricane Katrina, our deadliest hurricane in 70 years. The Japanese are breaking down in terror and panic. Who wouldn't after a nearly 9 point earthquake followed by 30 foot high tsunami waves sweeping whole towns off the map. And yet, the Japanese were probably about as well prepared for such a disaster as anyone could possibly be. But for Japan's strict building codes and frequent disaster drills, this calamity could have been even deadlier. I doubt that we would do nearly as well in a similar disaster. If our response to Katrina is any indication, our country is too hamstrung with corruption and conflict.

No matter how much we trim our sails and adjust our ballast, there will always be that wave which swamps our boat. Japan may well be experiencing (literally) just such a wave. But what is right and just demands that we should make every effort to save our neighbors as well as ourselves. Otherwise, nature is right to be indifferent to our life or death.


JCF said...

I doubt that we would do nearly as well in a similar disaster

No doubt at all.

I found myself shouting at a scene of a shaking apart office "Quit standing around, and get under a desk or door jamb!"

...and the Japanese DRILL for an earthquake EVERY month.

'Merkins would be so much dead meat...

[In my childhood, a patriarchal voice narrated a demonstration of how fundamentally orderly the universe was. Heh: do you remember Disney's "Our Mister Sun" at school, too? Complete w/ explicit Biblical claims in it? (I can't believe they were still showing that thing in the late 1970s)]

it's margaret said...