When Worlds Collide


An angry man once shot his neighbor  because of  a fence that had been erected a foot inside his property. If he had any notion of the vastness of the world, he might not have clung to his paltry strip of land with such passion. Though the ends of our universe have been explored by as­tronomers,  few are touched in their vision or behavior by that knowledge. Acquaintance with  astronomy should remind us of our puniness on the cosmic scale.

Many factors are held in balance to make life on earth possible. But we may not always recognize that even when all is safe in environmental terms, our  existence depends no less upon being left alone in space. The countless billions  of stars up there in the cold skies are moving at immense speeds. They are separated by unimaginable stretches of emptiness, which is why they never  collide. Within our own system, aside from planets like Venus and Mars and Jupiter, there are innu­merable  rocky chunks of varying dimensions, hurtling around inconspicuously like the riffraff of the solar community. These are the comets and  planetoids of random identity. Many of them have been tracked down by detective-astronomers. Normally, these bodies whirl around at respectable distances from one another.  Conflagrations  of astronomical propor­tions could result if they were to collide. The probability of for such celestial bumping, though very small,  is always there. According to informed observation and calculations, we are about to witness  one such colossal collision between July 16 and 24 of 2005.

Those who keep a watchful eye on the night skies tell us that sometime in the mid-1980s a stray comet got caught in the net of Jupiter’s giant gravitational field. While revolving around that im­mense planet, the tenuous comet exploded into a dozen and more splinters. These  began to surge at stupendous speeds towards Jupiter’s surface. Now, after years of accelerating rush, they are ex­pected to   pelt the Jovian surface,  like rocks the size of trucks zooming down at a hundred thousand mph and more.  The stagger­ing impact of this landing would be be­yond human experience or imagination. Some have estimated that even if all the nuclear bombs in the world’s arsenals were ignited all at once, the consequent catastrophe would be much less!

Though on the cosmic scale the awesome event will be like an accident in a neighboring street, it will be occurring at a very  safe distance away, for Jupiter is more than three hundred million miles from us. She is of course the most massive of all  planets, and grand enough to survive the pin-prick of the brutal intruders. Yet,  the awesome crash of the comet debris  will not be a minor happen­ing. The fiery commotion will be so drastic  that it will  be observ­able  from here on earth. Or so we are assured by eager astronomers who, like an inquisitive crowd waiting for the verdict  at a scandal-ridden trial, are readying their eyes and instruments to witness and record the imminent horrendous event.

We know that mammoth meteors have landed before on various planets with comparable fury. The gaping craters on the Moon, so familiar to us, are attributed to periodic meteoric impacts. But in all of recorded history, no conscious being is known to have ac­tually witnessed a  planetary collision of this magnitude or kind. Though the blast will be  in the distant domain of an­other world, our astronomers will be gathering much useful information from what they will see.

Leaving aside  the scientific data,   there is opportunity here for some sober reflection. If it is Jupiter now, could it be our dear earth another time? What if a massive asteroid begins to move mindlessly earthward at a stupendous speed?  How can we cope with such a terrible  bombardment from space? What significance will our dif­ferences -political conflicts, eco­nomic competitions, racial hatreds, religious bigotry, lawn ownership, and the like – have if such  a possibility became all too real?

We have reason to suspect that the earth  was subjected to  a gi­gantic cometary intrusion a few million years ago. Indeed, that event is believed to have been responsible for the extinction of the di­nosaurs. Now get this: the disappearance of those over-sized beasts  enabled smaller mammals to survive and evolve, eventually leading to the emergence of the human species. Let us think about this eerie conclusion: our pristine ancestors came about, and we are around today, because of a catastrophe of the kind we are about to witness on Jupiter this very week.

There is much wonder in high heavens, much mystery in serious science. We must learn  to look upon science not simply as an in­scrutable discipline with abstruse formulas and technical terms,  necessary for a hundred gadgetry, but as a mind-expanding experi­ence.  We should understand that science is  dignify­ing to their intelligence and  elevating to their spirits. It is more con­sciousness-raising   than the degrading drugs to which  some are lured. The value of scientific research goes beyond its rele­vance to technology and weaponry, for like art and music and  litera­ture, science illumines human awareness at its highest levels.

June 14, 2005

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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