Saturday, October 2, 2021

Baby Please Don't Go

In an NPR interview this morning, the singer-songwriter Dar Williams recalled that in 1987 she took a class that introduced her to the concept of "global warming."  "And we were like, Noooo," she chuckled.  Was this because she and her fellow students thought of a world that stays forever the same and never changes?  I get the impression that many people think so, even environmentalists, and that is weird to me. As a fifth-grader in the early 1960s I read books on science that told me about the Ice Ages, among other things, how the glaciers had come and gone, and were still receding right now.  Not long afterward I read that the length of the day and the year had changed over time; I also read about the long geological and evolutionary timelines, not to mention continental drift: changes in the environment that happens over thousands, even millions of years.

None of this made me anxious.  I was an unusual child, of course.  But I found those books in the school library, in a small three-room rural school, and as I remember they had clearly been read before.  So maybe I'm not all that unusual after all.

Imagine my bafflement, then, when an algorithm led me to this article in The Atlantic, a classy magazine for smart people.  "The Moon Is Leaving Us," says the headline, "and we can't stop it."  You can't blame writers for the headlines their editors come up with, but the author of this piece, Marina Koren, set the overwrought tone herself.

Each year, our moon moves distinctly, inexorably farther from Earth—just a tiny bit, about an inch and a half, a nearly imperceptible change. There is no stopping this slow ebbing, no way to turn back the clock. The forces of gravity are invisible and unshakable, and no matter what we do or how we feel about them, they will keep nudging the moon along. Over many millions of years, we’ll continue to grow apart.

She's a bit defensive.

Given this rather melodramatic description, you might wonder: Don’t you have better things to think about than the moon? Well no, not really, because I’m a space reporter and it’s my job to contemplate celestial bodies and write about them. And also because a representation of this phenomenon recently played out in China during festivities for the Mid-Autumn Festival, which marks the full moon closest to the fall equinox. A giant balloon designed to resemble the moon, craters and all, broke free and rolled into the street. Video footage of the unscripted moment shows two people running after the massive moon as it tumbles away. Bye!
I don't think I'm being too harsh to say that this is magical thinking: the Chinese balloon is an omen of the heartless moon abandoning us.  It isn't a space reporter's job, I would have thought, to anthropomorphize natural phenomena and celestial objects: "'lunar retreat'—a delightful term, as I’d prefer to imagine the moon enjoying itself at a relaxing getaway, bending its rocky body into various yoga poses, rather than slowly ghosting Earth." But maybe that's why Marina Koren is a staff writer for a prestigious magazine and I'm not.

Of course scientists love to attack science writing for the ignorant masses, but they also love to try to frighten us, as they frighten themselves, about the runaway moon, the sneakiness of Mother Nature, the heat death of the universe, and the yawning depths of infinite time.  Koren warns her readers:

Someday, about 600 million years from now, the moon will orbit far enough away that humankind will lose one of its oldest cosmic sights: total solar eclipses. The moon won’t be able to block the sun’s light and cast its own shadow onto Earth.

OMFG, like really? What am I going to do for excitement on a Saturday night when there are no more total solar eclipses?  It's highly unlikely, to the point of certainty, that "humankind" will still be around in six hundred million years anyway.  But that doesn't mean we can't work ourselves into a snit about the existential loss.

Koren concludes her piece by telling about the first time she ever looked through a telescope, thanks to a neighbor who set one up on their building's roof -- "this weekend."  Okay, she's probably a city kid, never had the chance before, maybe she lived in a city with no planetarium or observatory or school astronomy clubs or any other public resources.  But still: a science writer, a "space reporter," never sought out an opportunity to look through a telescope until the past few weeks?  (I shouldn't overgeneralize from myself, but by junior high school I'd managed to beg a small, relatively cheap reflector telescope from my parents for Christmas or my birthday, and read books about grinding a mirror for a bigger one.  Which I never managed to do, but my opportunities were limited and I managed to use them.  Kids these days...)

Human-accelerated climate change is real, as is the incrementally growing distance between the moon and the earth.  But reading stuff like Koren's article makes me wonder how much of many people's concern about global warming comes not from the evidence but an apocalyptic panic generated from within.  The time is fulfilled, and the end of the world is only 600 million years away -- repent while there's still time!