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APOCALYPSE NOW?

By any meaning attached to the word, 1994's multiple impacts of the fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on the planet Jupiter may have been truly "apocalyptic." Smashing into the bottom of the huge planet between July 16 and 22, the twenty or so major pieces of the comet put on a celestial fireworks display rivaling anything described in the biblical Book of Revelations, even if one needed a huge telescope or one orbiting in space to detect the actual impacts as they occurred. But carefully looking through my backyard 10" reflector with an eyepiece yielding around 160x, even I could see distinct line of new holes punched into the Jovian atmosphere, looking like so many black eyes or missing teeth marring the peachy-cream-colored face of the planet.

A mere curiosity for many viewers, perhaps, but when even such a faint view as mine is multiplied by the knowledge that the diameter of Jupiter is over eleven times that of the planet Earth, these small black spots in the telescope take on gigantic proportions -- with apocalyptic overtones in another sense of that word. For what would happen if such a comet, either in fragments or all in one piece, were to hit us here on our planet? There can be no question about it. The whole show would be over for us here on Earth. Any curtain call would have to be on the other side of the Pearly Gates.

The good news seems to be that the frequency of such collisions of this size is measured in millions of years, especially for our planet, which being 318 times lighter than Jupiter has much less gravity to attract comets and seduce them into taking up a new and unstable orbit around the Earth. But the bad news is that sizeable chunks (meteors) of otherwise well-behaved comets have apparently smashed into us here before and that even the impact of a large meteorite could make the earth uninhabitable for us for generations to come. During the summer of 1993 I visited, near Brent, Ontario, on the north side of Algonquin Park, the ancient remains of a crater which was made by what must have been just a very minor hunk of space rock compared to the smallest detectable fragments of Shoemaker-Levy 9. Yet anything living within a hundred miles of that relatively minor impact would probably have been killed by the shock wave alone. True, the evidence seems to indicate that the frequency of such collisions diminishes the older the solar system gets. But occurrences such as the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908, as well as a surprising number of multi-megaton force explosions detected in the atmosphere by military spy satellites each year, indicate that there still are a lot of loose flying objects out there in space just waiting for the invitation of the earth's gravity. Most of them just blow up high in our stratosphere before they do any damage except scare a few people out of their wits. But statistically speaking, some are bound, sooner or later, to hit pay dirt.

So what would happen if a Shoemaker-Levy 10 were spotted heading directly at Earth? One might expect a big upsurge in the religion business, but since it isn't represented on Wall Street, a shrewd investor might instead look for opportunities in the commodities exchange (how about "pork bellies") and distillery stocks -- until he reflected on the probability that there wouldn't be anyplace left to spend the profit all when the chips are cashed in!

However, looking at this whole matter from a more serious angle as a theologian, I think this apocalyptic scenario reveals more about ourselves now than it does about our future fate. For one, it shows us the difference between real faith and mere "beliefs". I may believe that the chances of my getting killed by a chunk of comet or a meteorite are very small. And I may be right, but not nearly so correct in my belief as I once thought. But on the other hand, if I really have "faith" (which is a loving trust in the Almighty), then maybe I shouldn't be so worried as to whether my opinions are mistaken or not. To have faith means to assume that the Maker of the Universe has it all figured out, even if we don't. But even more, it means to live in such a way that we calmly go about our business in away that reflects this basic trust. But what should this "business" be?

Someone is supposed to have once asked some well-known (but I forget who it was) Catholic saint, who happened to be washing dishes at that moment, what she would do if she knew for sure that she would die the next day. Her answer was "Keep washing dishes." But I think that reply could have just as well been given by a Zen monk, and as much as I may admire such calmness, I wonder if today something more is required from persons of faith.

To me, real faith would mean that in the face of a full awareness of what could happen, we also take on the responsibility to do what we can to avert such a disaster. Only when we have done all that can be expected of us, only then would there be a reason for anything like another Shoemaker-Levy, even one coming directly at us, to cause neither panic nor despair. Who knows, we might even succeed in being able to intercept it, in "Star Wars" fashion, causing it to explode harmlessly in space. But if we miss, and it doesn't -- well, may "the faith", as well as "The Force", still be with you nonetheless!

Richard W. Kropf
7-27-94


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