Saturday, October 02, 2004

A Small Speck

Here is a short story I recently wrote. I shared the story with my creative writing classes. Perhaps I should explain.
I teach high school English at a school in Colorado. One of my goals for a long time had been to become a teacher. At the age of 49 I returned to college and earned a BA and a teaching degree in 2002. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a job in the community where I live.
While teaching is challenging, it is also very fulfilling. The energy of my students keep me on my toes. Not only that, but I feel I am making a difference to future generations. While I have had many jobs during my life, this one is, by far, the most satisfying.
That's all for now. I hope you enjoy the story.

Scrutinizing a small speck that he had not noticed before, he muttered under his breath “What is that?” Somewhere between Saturday evening and Sunday morning Dr. Mark Everson, at the New Mexico Near Earth Research Center, noticed an anomaly. Everson had worked at the observatory since he earned his PhD in astrophysics from Dartmouth in 2002. His expertise was analyzing photos of NEOS or near-earth objects. These objects, which include asteroids and comets, are the leftover building blocks of the solar system formation process.
On a large table, pictures of tonight’s sky spread out before the astronomer. He was taking one last glimpse at the photos before his shift ended. Some abnormality caught his eye. He grabbed the table lamp magnifier and ran it slowly over the snapshot under suspicion. Never one to jump to conclusions, Everson checked his data to make sure of the speck’s position in the sky. Swinging around in his swivel chair, he wheeled back to the CCD Mosaic Imager. His fingers flew over the keyboard. He recalculated the coefficients. After several minutes he made a decision.
Somehow the environment that surrounded him tonight, which he always found secure, did not have that effect on him. The grinding of the modems and the flashing lights from computers had the opposite effect. His world was one of observations, theories, hypotheses, and performance of experimental tests of predictions made by like-minded scientists. He thought back on his graduate studies at Dartmouth and what Dr. Louise Beth-Meyer had told her students on the first day of class, “The scientific method is the process by which scientists, collectively and over time, endeavor to construct an accurate (that is, reliable, consistent and non-arbitrary) representation of the world.”i
Although it was several hours earlier in Puerto Rico Everson rang Aricebo to get additional information, if not a confirmation of what he thought he was observing. He dialed 9 * to dial the private number for Jose Guerra, head of telescope operations at the Aricebo Observatory. The tone from the phone jarred Guerra’s nerves. After three rings Guerra answered.
“Dr. Guerra,” he said.
Everson thought he detected exhaustion in his voice. After explaining who he was, Everson stated his business.
“Dr. Guerra, I may have spotted an unknown object tonight. I want to try to get some more information, and if possible, confirmation of what I suspect. So I thought I could send you the data and the picture I’m concerned about to get another opinion.”
There was no immediate reply on the other end. Everson thought that Guerra had hung up, or that there was something wrong with his phone. After several minutes of silence Guerra cleared his throat; that was reassuring.
“What exactly is it that you think you’ve seen?” Guerra asked.
“I’m being cautious,” Everson began, “but I think I may have spotted an as yet unknown asteroid.”
“Where?” Guerra said.
Everson checked the coordinates again. He didn’t want to make any mistakes.
“Are you ready?” asked Everson.
Guerra answered in the affirmative.
“OK. Here are the coordinates.”
Everson spoke the numbers carefully so that he would not have to repeat them.
“10h42m36.00s N41.69.”
The numbers easily rolled off Everson’s tongue as if he had memorized them.
“Are you positive that the numbers are correct?” Guerra inquired.
Everson paused for merely a fraction of a second before he responded.
“Yes, I have the data right here in front of me. I checked them several times before I gave them to you.”
Once again there was silence at Aricebo. Finally, after what seemed to be an excessive number of minutes without any sound Guerra spoke again.
“Dr. Everson, have you determined the size of the suspect object?”
Now it was Everson’s turn for silence. The question and its implications made an impact on him. If what he had seen was as large as he calculated it to be—well, it was unthinkable.
Mark thought back to the time and place he had first become interested in the heavens. He and his family were on a camping trip in the Tetons. The days were filled with fishing, hiking, and canoeing. But at night he would lie on his back and search the wide expanse of stars overhead. He was reminded of a Bible verse he had recently memorized in Sunday school, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” The Persiads were extremely spectacular that August of his ninth birthday. Hundreds of streaking “stars” filled the horizon. He could almost hear the energy bursting from them. Of course, he could not. That night was one he would remember for the rest of his life, no matter how long he lived.
Guerra’s voice roused Everson from his reverie. Everson swallowed hard. He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and face with the tail of his shirt. When had he started to perspire? He couldn’t remember.
Taking another deep breath, Everson finally answered, “I have estimated the mass of the object to be more than eight kilometers in circumference.”
Guerra exhaled deeply.
“Are you sure? This is most critical. Are you absolutely sure of the measurement?” Guerra said, his voice trembling.
“Dr. Guerra, I am a scientist. I am not infallible. I have made mistakes in the past. However, I am as sure of what I have just told you as I am that the sun will rise today,” Everson said.
“I am not questioning your abilities as a scientist” Guerra assured him.
With unstable hands Guerra sat back heavily in his chair. Could this be the end of life on earth? If so, could anything be done about it? Should governments be alerted to warn their citizens? What good would that do, Guerra thought? Panic, mayhem, chaos, and hysteria would ensue, he thought to himself. Better to not say anything at all rather than have that happen. But…
“You’ve seen what I have, doctor?” asked Everson.
Guerra did not answer.
On the desk sat a bottle of tequila. Foregoing the formalities of pouring some into a glass, Guerra gulped down several swallows. The jolt from the alcohol shook Guerra’s whole body. Guerra sat back in his chair, covered his face with both hands, and wept. After a few moments the doctor composed himself. He could think of nothing. His education had not prepared him for a moment such as this. He began to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Everson could hear murmuring in the background. He however could not make out the words.
Everson said, “Dr. Guerra, are you there? Are you OK?”
There was no answer.
Everson raised his voice and repeated, “Dr. Guerra, are you there? Are you OK?”
Silence was all he could hear from Guerra’s end. Computers at the New Mexico Near Earth Research Center hummed in Everson’s ears. In the past the sound was soothing and reassuring, however now the sound was more of an annoyance, causing Everson to become unnerved.
“Stop it! Stop it!” Everson shouted at the machinery. But the equipment clamored on.
Guerra leaned into the phone and asked, “What’s going on there, Everson?”
“Nothing,” Everson responded.
Both men were aware of the gravity of the situation. Each of them felt terribly alone, except for the link of technology, they were alone on a dying planet.
“What is your sense of the trajectory of the object?” asked Guerra, remembering that he was a scientist.
“Give me a few minutes,” Everson agitatedly said.
Again, Everson checked his computer monitor. On the screen was a graph depicting the trajectory of the object he had discovered. He gasped. Grabbing an old slide rule, a Texas Instrument calculator, and some graph paper, Everson clicked on the end of his mechanical pencil. The sound made him jittery. Minutes later he compared the figures on the calculator with the slide rule and the graph paper. The figures did not lie. They were within meters of the projected impact area from the computer model glaring at him from his monitor.
“The figures that I have, and I have checked them with the computer model, is that the object will make contact with earth somewhere around central New Mexico.”
Guerra paused for a moment before asking, “When?”
“Well,” Everson began, “the speed at which the object is traveling would put it into earth’s atmosphere no earlier than October 23, twelve days from now. It may reach here a day or two later.”
“Twelve days,” Guerra thought.
Guerra, for some reason, began humming a tune. What was it? Ah, yes The Twelve Days of Christmas.
“Have you noticed the object before this evening, Everson?” Guerra asked.
“That’s the strange thing,” Everson responded, “I have, but the object was not where I observed it tonight on that occasion. I observed it in December 1992, when it made a close approach to Earth. At the time, it was an average of about four million kilometers from Earth.”
“You don’t mean 4179 Toutatis?”
Yes, I do,” Everson replied.
“I could identify the object as 4179 Toutatis because of its odd formation. But I was startled because it had strayed from its normal orbit.”
Once again Guerra sat back in his chair. Tears spilled from his eyes onto his pale blue lab coat. Sitting forward his chair squeaked.
“I’ve got to fix that someday soon,” Guerra reasoned.
“OK,” Guerra began, “what you have seen tonight is exactly the same thing I have seen. I have figured the speed, trajectory, and place of impact exactly the same as you. The question is now, what are we going to do about it?”
Everson was no hero. He was an ordinary man. He was a scientist. Heroes were people who risked their lives to save others. He did not have the stomach or inclination to be one of those kinds of people.
An orange glow from the rising sun peeked through the opening of the telescope’s housing. It began as a thin ray then burst into the room. How many more sunrises will I see, Everson mused? Mindful of the task at hand he returned to his conversation with his colleague, Dr. Guerra.
“Is NASA Deep Space Network on line yet? Claire Morrison is one of the foremost experts on NEOs. Perhaps she will give us some hint at what we should do.”
“Do, you say. What is there to do? Have we enough time or resources to do anything?” Guerra nearly shouted.
Running his fingers through his hair Everson tried to calm himself. He answered back with some assurance that, yes, there was something that could and should be done, and immediately.
“I will call Claire Morrison and set up a three-way conference call. Hold the line while I try to reach her,” Everson said.
Everson flipped through the international directory of land-based observation centers and found the number he was looking for within a few seconds. The dial tone summoned him to place his call, he did so in short order hoping—praying—that someone was at NASA Deep Space Network. The phone rang—once, twice, three times, then a fourth and a fifth time. Still no answer. Then a groggy voice answered on the other end.
“Is this NASA Deep Space Network?” Everson asked.
“No, this is not—whatever you said. This is a private residence. What number did you call?”
Everson rudely hung up the phone and angrily swore. He looked at the number he thought he had dialed. He was one digit off. He slammed his fist on the console and sore again, “Dammit!” He was exhausted and tried to focus. Why, of all times, could he not get one simple number right? He checked and rechecked the telephone number again and then dialed. The phone rang. After six rings a pleasant voice answered on the other end.
“This is NASA Deep Space Network. If you know your party’s extension please enter it now.”
“Technology!” he muttered in disgust.
“If I knew my ‘party’s extension’ I would have dialed it!” he screamed at the nonsencient machine.
He looked at the directory again. There on the page, following the main number for Claire Morrison was an extension number—6645. He dialed the number again and the same pleasant voice responded, “This is NASA Deep Space Network. If you know your party’s extension please enter it now.” This time he did not react he simply dialed the extension number. After two rings someone answered the phone, “Hello, you have reached the desk of Claire Morrison. I’m either away from my desk or on another line. Please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as possible.” When he heard the words, ‘as soon as possible’ he was slightly amused.
“Lady, if you only knew what I know ‘as soon as possible’ isn’t soon enough.”
“Dr. Guerra, I haven’t been able to reach Dr. Morrison. Do you have any other ideas?”
Outside commuters were filling up the streets and I-10. Cars streamed past the observatory, oblivious to the fact that the inhabitants of the vehicles had little precious time left. Still, would it be so terrible to let them blissfully go about their daily lives, being consumed by their petty concerns, their mundane pastimes, their all-consuming interests that mostly revolved around their physical needs and desires?
He could see two cars trying to occupy the same space at the same time on the freeway. This, he knew, was a scientific impossibility. Two solid objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, he recalled from one of his undergraduate courses. Yet, they still persisted. Then suddenly, the blue sedan with a young woman behind the wheel was catapulted into the guardrail by the larger silver SUV. Both drivers exited their vehicles waving their arms wildly into the air, their mouths mimicking the motion of their arms. He could read their lips. The young woman was impugning the other driver’s ability to navigate. The man, taller and broader than the diminutive woman, was using some rather harsh words himself.
Guerra sat thinking. Behind him he could hear some of his colleagues entering the building, laughing about some joke or incident that one or the other had found comical. Dr. Guerra hung up the receiver, picked up his belongings and strolled past the other people entering the building, exchanging pleasantries with them as he fished his car keys from his lab coat pocket.
“Dr. Guerra, are you there? Dr. Guerra? What’s going on? We’ve been disconnected. Dr. Guerra, answer me,” Everson pleaded. But there was no answer.
Everson frantically dialed the number for the Aricebo Observatory. A pleasant voice answered on the other end.
“This is the Aricebo Observatory. If you know your party’s extension please enter it now.”
Everson laid his head on the console in front of him, closed his eyes, and wept.

i APPENDIX E: Introduction to the Scientific Method,


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