REFLECTIONS ON THE EROS LANDING
( February14, 2001)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.