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Planetary Science

Tablet Original Fiction: a scientist chases a meteorite, and finds a message from God

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Derek Shapton/Gallery Stock



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***

One winter day, with no warning at all, a 10,000-ton rock, 65 feet long, about which the Near-Earth Object observation group at Jet Propulsion Laboratory had not been in the least concerned, entered Earth’s atmosphere, streaked across the eastern sky where the sun was just rising on Siberia, and exploded 15 miles above the industrial city of Chelyabinsk, knocking out many of the city’s windows and pelting snow-covered fields with busted bits of iron and rock.

In California, it was 4:20 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, and Mitch Neyman, who had been in the embrace of a dentist’s chair for the last 11 minutes, was waiting for the technician to return with his X-ray images so the extent of damage to the crown on his number two molar could be determined, following a careless encounter with a nutshell.

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Mitch’s cellphone tinkled like falling glass. The text message read: “Huge met strike Russia lets go? Conrad.” Orbiting satellites, as well as stations set up to monitor clandestine nuclear explosions, had detected the celestial event. Observations all suggested a meteoric impact. Altitude, velocity, and direction of the meteor were quickly determined, and members of Mitch’s group of Small Body Planetary Scientists immediately uploaded what they knew to the NASA website.

A normally slow-moving and thoughtful man, Mitch yanked the paper bib from his chest, flung the chair’s restraining armrest upward, and turned his not-so-small body gracelessly out of the chair. His dental assistant was nowhere in sight.

“Sorry, emergency—got to go,” he explained to the receptionist.

*

At 5 o’clock of the same day, Mitch’s mother, Eva Neyman, 88 years old, sat propped up in her nursing-home bed with her supper on a tray in front of her. Paper valentines dangled from a streamer above her head. From across the room, where the television news was on, she heard the words “asteroid” and “meteor” and recognized them but could not have said exactly what they meant. She didn’t wonder about her feeling of familiarity with them any more than she would wonder that she knew a door from a wall, or her food tray from a box of tissues, for there was no wonder left in her, nor any trace of recollection of how she knew any of the things that she did, in fact, still know. If someone had popped in to ask about her professional life, she might even have responded with “Professor of Geology at the University of Southern California,” but she wasn’t conscious of that fact either, unless prompted. Things that were said were familiar and recognizable or not. The world had gone flat for Eva. That her mind had once been active and curious and full of knowledge remained embedded only in the admiring recollections of former students and colleagues and the fond ones of her daughter, Deborah, and her son, Mitchell.

*

“I wonder what Rob’s going to make of that meteor,” Mitch’s wife said to him at home, as he sat at his computer anxiously pecking out an email to his group’s secretary regarding the validity of the multiple-entry Russian visa he and Conrad had obtained some 14 months earlier, when they had attended a scientific meeting at the Sternberg Astronomical Institute in Moscow. “Remember that time—when was that? When Rob asked your mom to check out that crate of rocks he brought back from Israel?”

Mitch remembered. He remembered many things about Rob Collins, his oldest friend and now his brother-in-law, especially the wide, blue-eyed gaze of utmost interest that he wore when they first met. It was a look of sincerity and openness that he amazingly still bore more than 40 years later, even though his hairline had retreated to the crown and his face grown ruddy and broad. That look of innocence was never feigned. In high school he had engaged simply and unguardedly, almost joyously, with everything and everyone that crossed his path—except when it came to his homework. He unaffectedly held the trust of the other boys in their group, boys who were mostly acquiring top grades and preparing themselves for college while Rob barely managed to keep up, never excelling at anything other than shop classes and sports. But he had successfully built a working roadster in his garage and used to take them for rides whenever they asked.

“Maybe Rob would like to go rock collecting with you in Russia.” Sharon’s agile voice managed to sound derisive and cheery at the same time. Although she too liked Rob, she delighted in making fun of his simple-minded view of the world. “God Smites Evil Empire With Giant Rock,” she added. Mock headlines were her form of haiku.

Mitch responded to her sarcasm with a grunt. He understood his wife’s point: Rob might be inclined to read something supernatural into the Earth’s dramatic event that afternoon. But he didn’t want to take up his brother-in-law’s unscientific notions about meteors or Israeli rocks just then.

Like many scientists, Mitch managed two lives, lived in two different realities. One was the ordinary world of morning showers, meals, dental appointments. The other one was made up of the ring of boulders swarming between Mars and Jupiter, any one of which, suddenly perturbed, might enter a path that could lead to a collision with Earth. The quotidian domain was one that he more or less occupied without giving it much attention, aside from the demands of his physical body and the needs of his family; the other involved almost all of his conscious thought and engaged most of his time. He didn’t mind his wife making fun of Rob, but there was actually never a moment in all the years when Mitch wouldn’t have enjoyed his company. He would be glad if Rob were somehow useful and they could go off together to Siberia. But that thought vanished altogether during the turbulent flight from Los Angeles to Moscow and then a chaotic meeting in the airport with a longtime friend from the Vernadsky Institute. After that came an Aeroflot flight to Chelyabinsk with a member of the meteor committee of the Russian Academy of Science, with whom Conrad had been in recent contact in regard to asteroid DA14, which was expected to pass inside the orbit of communications satellites on the very same day the meteor, by amazing coincidence, struck Siberia.

Though jet lagged, cold-numbed, and overly stimulated by the prospects awaiting him, Mitch was aware of his good fortune. That this meteor event had happened in his own lifetime was remarkable enough, but also that he, Mitch, was in perfect position to view its aftermath and to collect—with his own hands—the pieces of meteoric rock that could tell the tale of the parental asteroid’s origin within the solar system: What a trip!

*

The following day, still sleep-deprived, his digestion reacting badly to unfamiliar food, Mitch was approached at the counter of the Wall Street Coffee Shop by a fellow in a mustard-yellow leather cap. “You want buy?” the man asked, holding out his hand. In the hand were two knuckle-sized rocks. He pointed upwards. “From sky,” he said. “Boom.”

“Where did you find them?” asked Mitch. “Over there?” He pointed to the north. “There?” to the east, then to the south, and the west. The man’s eyes and hand remained pointed toward the west. It was, as Mitch already knew, the direction of the meteor’s path. Mitch intended to follow that path himself. It was a matter of pride. If he failed, then meteoric fragments would no doubt be available to him for a few more days in the coffee shops of Chelyabinsk, before the international dealers snapped them up.

He took the rental car and drove to a Walmart-like store. There he bought himself a pair of pull-on black boots and a coarsely knit khaki-colored cardigan for extra warmth under his fleece-lined jacket. He then drove off in a more or less westerly direction. As he dodged the erratic local traffic, his attention was diverted by what looked like a gingerbread church with Stars of David decorating the upper story below the roof. Slowing the car at the edge of the road, he saw that most of the building’s arched first-floor windows were broken. Even for a Jew raised in a secular household, as Mitch had been, it was impossible to be unaware of the significance of smashed synagogue windows in Eastern Europe.

Mitch’s first impulse was to stop and offer help. But then he recalled the boarded-up front window of the Wall Street Coffee Shop. This broken glass did not belong to his people alone, but to everyone in Chelyabinsk, to Orthodox Christian, to atheist, and to Jew. He, a man in search of natural, not social, causes of destruction, was free to turn his back on the damage and move on without regret.

He resumed his drive, threading his way out of the city and onto a highway bordered by vast snowy fields. After a while, he saw in the distance a number of moving objects that turned out, as he approached, to be solitary people making their slow way over hard-packed snow, eyes cast downward like winter beachcombers.

He pulled to the side of the road and parked. He then reached into the back seat for his new boots and an eared hunting cap Sharon had found in one of the closets, put them on, and headed off to work.

It was while walking in a more or less orderly series of paths in order to avoid covering the same ground twice (he was nothing if not a methodical man) across the two-foot-deep undisturbed layer of hard snow, watching for holes that might indicate the entry of invisible extra-planetary objects, that Mitch thought again of his wife’s reminder about Rob and the crate of rocks he had brought back from the Middle East. He pictured his old friend trudging, in just the way Mitch now trudged, across a rock-littered desert landscape, the customary baseball cap on his thinning gray-blond hair. What the heck had Rob been looking for?

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Planetary Science

Tablet Original Fiction: a scientist chases a meteorite, and finds a message from God