Apophis

Recently, I learned that an asteroid named Apophis, about 1,000 feet long (2.5 football fields), is scheduled to pass disconcertingly close to Earth on April 13, 2029. That’s a Friday, in case you were wondering. If the name “Apophis” sounds like it conjures images of doom, that’s because it is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian god Apep. In Egyptian mythology, Apep was the god of darkness, evil, and disorder, and was known as the enemy of Ra (the sun god). Apep was thought to assume the form of a formidable serpent, who attempts to swallow Ra each night as the sun makes his nightly passage through the Earth’s middle. Each night, the god Set was the primary defender of Ra, consistently keeping Apep at bay. This is what NASA’s Near Earth Orbit program has to say, on a page entitled “Predicting Apophis’ Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036”:

“The future for Apophis on Friday, April 13 of 2029 includes an approach to Earth no closer than 29,470 km (18,300 miles, or 5.6 Earth radii from the center, or 4.6 Earth-radii from the surface) over the mid-Atlantic, appearing to the naked eye as a moderately bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. Depending on its mechanical nature, it could experience shape or spin-state alteration due to tidal forces caused by Earth’s gravity field. This is within the distance of Earth’s geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth’s equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region. Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036 Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).” http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/

Bottom line: Apophis is coming close enough in 2029 to pass inside some of our satellites, but highly-refined projections based on a myriad of factors indicate that the possibility of impact with Earth does not exist at that time. It will return on April 13, 2036, with a chance of impact that NASA says is 1 in 250,000. Those odds are calculated based on the chances of Apophis flying through a gravitational “keyhole” during the 2029 pass. The keyhole refers to a narrow, specific area in space in which Earth’s gravitational field would alter the path of Apophis’ future orbit — if it passes through that specific area in 2029. NASA estimates the keyhole odds to be 1 in 250,000; but if it does go through the keyhole, it will slam into us in 2036 unless space agencies can implement one of the theoretical ways to deflect it. The good news is that Apophis is coming into range to be extensively analyzed by both optical telescopes and radar from Arecibo in late 2012-early 2013. At that time, much uncertainty about its future chances will likely be eliminated.

If Apophis were to strike, it would cause major devastation around the general area of impact, but NASA assures us that it is not large enough to wreak global catastrophe (of course, one wonders if NASA is taking into account the global effects of crop destruction). But in Earth’s history, there have been at least a few asteroids that did cause catastrophe on a global scale. The best known is the “K-T asteroid,” its name indicating the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods — the Cretaceous was the end of the dinosaurs, and we are living in the Tertiary. Its 12-mile crater was discovered beneath the sea off the Yucatan Peninsula. The K-T asteroid was 6 miles long and eradicated 70% of Earth’s life — due to the initial impact and everything it incinerated, the shock wave, the tsunami, the global fires, the effects of debris in the atmosphere (including complete darkness for roughly 6 months), the acid rain, and the subsequent global temperature drop.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how every natural global catastrophe that we know about in the history of the Earth, while leading to widespread destruction for many contemporaneous species, ended up creating the conditions for other species to emerge, changing the face of global life over and over again. This was certainly the case with the K-T asteroid; before it hit and spelled the eventual end for most dinosaurs (the remaining ones becoming the ancestors of birds), mammals could not have gained a foothold. At the time before the asteroid, mammals were a meek group of small creatures no bigger than rodents; they were dinosaur snacks, and snacks for other large predators. When the effects of the asteroid made life so difficult for large land species that they went extinct, the small mammals had the free rein to thrive, evolve, and eventually lead to the life we see today, including us. Hard as it may be to believe, we are distant descendants of those tiny, industrious mammals that were only able to thrive when the dinosaurs were gone.

As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of life; we take it for granted that we should keep multiplying ourselves upon the Earth unchecked. If our explosive population growth and the consequent tendency to destroy large swaths of other species’ habitats cause harm, then that harm is ultimately acceptable — because, after all, we’re humans.  Often, religious people tend to think that God instituted us to assume this position, and therefore we have license to do whatever we think is necessary to continue our explosion over the face of the planet; if that means a mind-boggling consumption rate of finite planetary resources, as well as the eradication of species that have been here for millennia, then so be it. We belong here, says this mentality, and the Earth belongs to us. God wants it that way.

But Genesis doesn’t just say “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). It also says that humans will rule (radah) over the Earth. This concept does not simply signify “dominion” in the English connotation, which so often is linked only with subjugation. It carries more of a sense of “sovereignty,” which, in biblical thought, included an ideal of wise stewardship. Have we managed our effect on the planet with wise stewardship? I think the answer to that is obvious. Our main concern is ourselves; everything else is several hundred miles down on the priority list.

For a species that is so intelligent, it isn’t particularly intelligent to think that ignoring our effect on the planet and its ecosystems will have no negative consequences for humans  (and I’m not just talking about climate change — don’t forget resource depletion). The planet itself has endured for billions of years and is oblivious to us; it is the life forms upon it that come and go for one reason or another. If any sequence of events leads to the eventual extinction of humans, the planet will still keep orbiting the Sun, and whatever life forms survive will adapt and give rise to new life forms. Just as life has always done on this planet. The sad part of that is having to admit that as of now, the planet’s ecosystems would be far better off without us. We are an incredibly destructive species. We abuse our adaptability and intelligence to act with little regard for species other than our own — this despite a professed belief on the part of most of us that God had a hand in the creation of those other species. Other species occupy only their own niches, without our ability to drive others to extinction, deplete resources, and literally change the surface of the planet. Since we do have those abilities, it becomes our responsibility to control them.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Born in the Garden of Eden

The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of humankind (incidentally, the term “Fall” is never used in the biblical account) can be interpreted in many different ways by its religious inheritors. In the world of Christian interpretation, there are some that take this story only at its most literal face value. Adam and Eve were two historical individuals who ate a fruit [not necessarily an apple, since the Hebrew word pri can mean any fruit] because they were tempted by the serpent [not necessarily the devil, since the serpent might represent any tempting, deceptive impulse], and were kicked out of a real geographical Eden for violating God’s one command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Other Christians see this story as metaphor, a lesson on why life can be so far from the ideal world we are all capable of imagining. In classical Christian theology, it is a story (metaphor or otherwise) that details the arrival of imperfection and sin into the human experience, and explains why such things afflict all of us.

The Eden story seeks to provide the answer to some of life’s most troublesome realities: why childbirth, a joyous event, comes accompanied with unparalleled physical pain, and why a man can work in his fields until he has no skin left on his fingers and no sweat left in his body and the earth might still not yield enough to live on. And why even if it does, that yield cannot ever come forth without hard, physical dedication. In short, the Eden story recognizes that this world and that human life are imperfect, and seeks to tell us why. That, at least, is something on which both literalists and non-literalists can agree. Beyond that, literalists often believe the story is a straightforward one about how two people disobeyed God by giving in to greed and temptation, lost out on Paradise, and thereby doomed the rest of us to sin and the school of hard knocks. Non-literalists often believe the story is a quaint, perhaps somewhat embarrassing tale of origins that observes (1) life’s a bitch, and (2) why it’s a bitch.

To my mind, the essence of the story is neither of these. The Eden story is a sophisticated and multi-layered coming-of-age tale, a commentary on the point in time (and maybe that point could be a process over thousands of years) when humans came to know good and bad, truth and deception. That is to say, the point in time when humans became sentient as a species. When humans gained a knowledge and capability they had not had before: the knowledge that it is possible to deceive and to cause gratuitous harm with aforethought for one’s own gain, or worse, pleasure. The serpent, which I take to represent all those capabilities we have and wish we didn’t, tempted Adam and Eve — the prototypical humans — to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, even though God had warned them not to. And they did. The serpent’s “promise”? That they would become like gods, that they would become wise.

This is a story in which God finds out that Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree when God goes for a stroll one evening to enjoy the cool part of the day. This is not a literal story and it was never intended to be, to my mind. God had told the humans they could eat of any tree except the forbidden one, for the day they ate of that one, they would surely die. It seems to me that they did die when they ate of the Tree, but not by a stopping of the heart. What died was the creature — the species — they had been before gaining such knowledge.

The Garden of Eden is a story that describes the loss of innocence; I believe, the loss of innocence as a species. Innocence is not the quality of being good all the time (any parent of a child can tell you that). Innocence is the state of not knowing — of not being capable of hurting someone or something as a result of deliberately intending to do so. And the innocent being is not capable of that because the innocent being does not even know such a thing is possible; such a being cannot think of doing that because that awareness does not yet exist within its mind. It is not yet wired for it. Most animals are innocent in this way: they might cause harm or kill, but they do so either to eat or to defend themselves, their group, or by extension their home territory. They do not cause hurt out of malice, deception, or for kicks.

Some of us are still in Eden, in a way. Among humans, innocence still lives — in very young children. This does not mean young children are always paragons of behavior. But it means that very young children do not think to themselves: “I want to hurt mommy’s/daddy’s/my friend’s feelings, so I will do x-y-z and hurt their feelings that way.” A very young child might do or say something that does hurt someone else, but they are not doing so in a knowing fashion, or for pleasure, or for some selfish gain. They are going on what they want or feel in the moment, without aforethought. I say “very young children” because eventually, children do get to an age — biologically, get to a point in their brain’s wiring — where hurting someone else because they want to, or because it benefits them in some way, becomes possible. At that point, they are no longer in Eden. Even if, hypothetically, they never intentionally hurt another being, they are aware that such a capability exists and that there are people who do it. That is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

In that sense, it seems to me that the Eden story not only tells of a species’ development from innocence to knowledge of good and bad, but also of each individual within that species. Very young children are innocent, and it is our job to teach them how to treat other living beings in preparation for the time when they grow older. That job is a sacred responsibility. It is all the more sacred because another quality of the innocence of a young child is the implicit trust that child has. Children have a capacity for trust that humbles us. You could tell a small child the sky is blue because God colored it that way with God’s Crayola marker, and that small child could very well believe you. At night when I give my child her allergy medicine, it strikes me how completely she trusts that what I am giving her will cause her no harm. She has no apparatus for doubting that, and the sweetness of that trust speaks to me.

All of this, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he told the disciples not to prevent parents from bringing their little children to him. As recorded in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples thought the children would bother him, but Jesus’ response was emphatically the opposite. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me; do not stop them, for to these belongs the Kingdom of God. Very truly I tell you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it.” Then Jesus gathered the children into his arms and blessed them.

Knowledge of good and bad, in addition to all of the above, also extends to the awareness that bad things happen in the world. My young daughter accidentally caught sight of a photo of the Polish plane after it had crashed to the ground, and she said with furrowed brow: “Oh, the plane fell out of the sky! Oh, the plane is sad.” Then, after thinking another moment, she brightened up: “Slinky can help! Yeah, Slinky can help get the plane off the ground.” No knowledge of the tragedy involved — and at her age, I intend to keep it that way. Hers was a lack of knowledge of the scale of what had gone wrong, and hers was a sweet and simple desire to help, and then happily going to read her bedtime story with us. That is innocence, and I will preserve that for her as long as possible — even while teaching her how we as humans should behave in the world outside of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010