REFLECTIONS ON THE EROS LANDING

( February14, 2001)

In 1801, exactly two hundred years ago Giuseppe Piazzi's telescope spotted for human knowledge a huge chunk of rock barely 500 miles across, hurtling around the sun like some respectable planet. This was the first of countless asteroids (star-like objects) that would gradually be discovered, and most of them, like tiny islands in the South Pacific, are confined to an interplanetary region between Mars and Jupiter, known as the asteroid belt. Some of these bump into each other and are shattered into smithereens, bits of which sometimes find their way into the earth's atmosphere, zoom down as falling stars and land as meteorites. In 1898, Gustav Witt discovered the asteroid Eros which strayed away from its comrades and came closer to us than we would like. But the fleeting proximity of  this massive rock about 25 miles across was utilized by astronomers to make a more precise measurement of the sun's distance from us.

A spacecraft bearing the acronym  NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) was launched in February 1996 from Florida to visit Eros. It was projected in such a way that after a complicated path of some two billion miles it was trapped into the grab of Eros's mild gravitation, where it has been circling around for almost a year. Its mission was to capture the object on candid camera and tell us all about its shape and size, and the wrinkles on its face.

Earlier this week, exactly 200 years after the first asteroid was discovered, NEAR made a smooth crash-landing on that distant islet in the void of space which is hurtling in orbit at a tremendous speed, some 196 million miles away. The made-on-Earth contraption jumped on the rugged rock at the command of earthlings who base their calculations and commands on solid physics and mathematics. This too is the magic of science: the ability to device and direct objects millions of miles away and retrieve interesting information through them.  This impressive power arises from a mechanistic and  reductionistic physics that discovers basic laws, analyzes matter and energy into their ultimate units, and ignores claims of the equivalence of all modes of knowing.

The mindless chunk of stone which, like its countless cold companions, has been doing the rounds for a few billion years, may not recognize it as such, but this sure was  a singular honor for it, to be orbited by an artifact of human intelligence. It is astonishing that in this day and age, and with little to show for, critics of the assumptions and methodology of modern science glibly speak about the limitations of scientific knowledge and the unreliability of its foundations, and sometimes laud insights couched in irrationality.

If anti-science philosophers and alternative-mode epistemologists are not impressed by this type of spectacularly fruitful hardcore science, and if they don't realize that with all its shaky foundations and tentativeness, science is the best that humanity has been able to come up with for providing testable and coherent interpretations of the physical world, then one wonders if there is anything that rational science can do to entice all reasonable people into its own framework.

But this much is clear: If we wish to explore the world, if we wish to gain coherent understanding of how it functions, and if we wish to be excited by the all the wondrous elements in our grand universe, then we need to learn and do science. We must enrich the minds of the young with sound scientific knowledge which alone can inoculate them against mind-numbing pseudo-sciences which are lurking all around to enslave our psyche. The vulgarity of palmistry and numerology and such are often appealing because even if calculations, physical laws, orbits, course-corrections, electronics, remote control and the like are awesome and consequential, they sound drab, colorless and just factual to many who are not directly involved, and who enjoy more imaginative reflections on what science can and cannot do.

When we reflect a little on this wondrous new episode in the chilling intertness of cosmic silence, in which a random rock in the solar sway has been touched by a human contrivance, is this not an affirmation of the human spirit which never ceases to strive to explain and explore? Can we not see this as a spark of the divine, lighting up a spot in high heaven via Homo sapiens? It is at least poetically meaningful for me to consider it thus.