The Astronomers: Excerpt from A Hairy and Fiery Star

The astronomers, their eyes fixed on the distant stars and their nights sacrificed to the demands of their ethereal trade, were the first to report the comet’s imminent arrival. As if the comet had come from below the plane of the solar system, or from behind the sun, it had caught them by surprise. That was clear in their rush to announce its discovery. Their press releases were full of statements about velocity and trajectory but the import of them was obvious. The comet would be passing close enough to earth to be seen by the unaided eye.

From arcane reports in the back pages of academic journals to the news stories on slow days, the momentum of the discovery began to grow. The reactions were varied. Those whose research required intemperate heavens—such as astronomers and cosmologists—excitedly prepared for its arrival.

Even while the scientists prepared their instruments, set rockets to launch in case the visitor thought to be from the Kuiper Belt proved to be the once-in-a-million year comet from the far Oort Cloud, astronomers gazed eagerly into photographic plates sensitized by a toxic brew of chemicals. They were looking for an out-of-place star, for a glimmer in the sparkling reverse-colour splendor of the universe that would indicate that their career would either be established or disappear. They called each other, eager in the darkness beside huge telescopes scanning the night sky, and when woken from a sound sleep their first thought was of the comet.

“What news?” they would ask while spouses grumbled beneath the blankets. “Any change?”

Their profession was one of solitary card games in cold desert installations. It involved calculations so obscure that even their peers objected to the formulas used to obtain the results. They were a haunted people, their faces drawn by their discipline. The cherubic astronomer was an outcast, and many thought that those who were overly optimistic about certain signals should save their “Wows” for the public sphere. A serious astronomer expects the mundane, plans for the mundane, and keeps their wishes for the spectacular private. Secretly, not even admitting it to themselves, they wished for the phenomenon which would undermine everything they believed. Only in a complete denial of modern physics could their secret desire for disruption become reality, but they dared not whisper such heresy to anyone. They spoke of findings and expected results, instead of the dreams which had originally driven them to the blackboard and the photographic plate.

People became curious about what had inspired reports about comet itself, and before long the news services were pursuing the scientists responsible for the announcement. The attention turned out to be a mixed blessing. More funding was suddenly available, and most governments diverted the waste stream of their public purse to astronomical work and scientific research. Unfortunately, the renewed interest meant that astronomers had to make public statements. Blinking like moles suddenly exposed to the daylight, the astronomers found themselves pulled away from their work by department heads eager for publicity. As quickly became apparent, synthesizing mounds of data for the public wasn’t their best skill. They laboured far into the night—deeply resentful that they weren’t crunching data or poring over photographic plates—to cut down complex papers until they could fit into the sound bites the media companies wanted.

They were forced to make scientific-sounding statements about the comet that a layperson could understand. Stripping away their knowledge of velocity and trajectory, apogee and gravitational perturbations, they spoke in terms of hours and days. They assured the fearful that the excitement was purely intellectual. Although it pained them to answer such questions, they said that the monstrous tail of the comet, illuminated by the sun even though the sky was dark, was harmless. Despite partnerships which had endured academic rivalry, they fought with each other over catchy names for the comet and other visible phenomenon which were more accurately described by mathematics.

Beckoned into their offices and laboratories, the public relations machines took over where the scientists had faltered. Men and women who’d spent their career using the accomplishments of others for their own gain rallied their buzzwords. The camera’s glass eye was their friend, and they fancied it winked at them as they wrapped the obscure multisyllabics of the scholars in the soft blanket of platitudes and funding requests.

The globe continued to turn as it had for billions of years, its orbit slightly decaying as the tidal drag made its minute effect felt over millennia, but on the surface of the planet few were those who cared to look past the city lights enough to care about the impending doom, delight, or evidence, depending on who was watching.

The scientists, fooled a hundred times by their eagerness for rarity, made cautious assessments. They watched their peers’ faces while they explored the routine march of the heavens, even while their bones cried out for the bizarre.

Although much of the world reacted to the comet’s coming with a mixture of scholarly excitement and doom-laden trepidation, the small town of Boltzman was at first largely unaware that the incomprehensible clockwork of the heavens was throwing a cog. Carrying on with their lives as they had through several wars, an attempted genocide, and multiple invasions, the townspeople relied on stolid good sense as though it were both a shield and a meal.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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