Miracles of Modern Science

Portrait of Pluto and Charon.

Portrait of Pluto and Charon.

I know for a moment I’ll come off as one of those people who says things like “kids today!” but just stick with me here, because I’m not stomping over other people’s perceived shortcomings.

Two days ago, I got to sit at my computer and watch a computer simulation (via NASA’s Eyes, an app built and freely offered) of New Horizons making its closest pass to Pluto on its way to the Kuiper Belt. I just want to unpack that, okay? I sat at my computer, which happens to be a very very very long way from California and from the places where I grew up and from the people I grew up with. But I had the simulation running in real time, and on a browser tab I had a NASA TV stream running.

Back when I was in high school, we lived near Charleston, which is much nearer to Cape Canaveral than where I am now. And one of our neighbors said “hey, if you know where to look, you can see the shuttle launch!”

So I checked on a compass to see which way was southish, and compared my instinct with an old map. Because NO INTERNET, right? And as I listened to the countdown on the TV in the other room, I looked for and found that elegant candle flame rising up into the sky. I’ve seen a shuttle launch.

I grew up in a time where I used a card catalogue to write my term papers. Now I can just pull PDFs from my university’s online library.

This isn’t some cri de coeur about how easy kids have it today — this is a moment of reflection to let myself be amazed and full of wonder at the seriously amazing stuff that happens today, nearly as a matter of course. There’s so much going on to not be happy about, and to be very angry about, and disillusioned and disappointed, if not outright betrayed. That’s why I think it’s vital to take these moments to realize I can chat with friends across the globe with a mic headset and a computer, and I can celebrate with the people at JPL in real time the amazing milestones they reach.

Pluto has mountains made of water ice. It is geologically active. I can’t be alone in thinking how OMG COOL this is, can I? I can’t. Two weeks ago the best image we had of Pluto was a pixellated blob. Now we have this, and it’s only going to get better as the data streams a boggling distance toward Earth and we start parsing it all out.

nh-plutosurface

The Icy Mountains of Pluto.

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