Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

I hate Facebook sometimes.  The too-political status updates that boil your blood, the jealousy-inducing photo uploads of far-away places that you’ve never visited, and the stomach-dropping realization that you’ve been defriended - all virtual sins that have been trespassed against me, and that I have also trespassed.    
Facebook sometimes makes me angry; it sometimes makes me jealous; but other times, it makes me grateful. You see, a few months ago a stray Facebook status update changed my perspective on life in the universe.  Literally.

Usually I don’t like thinking about the universe.  At all.  In fact, I hate outer space.  The final frontier of black holes, supernovas, and asteroids creeps. me. out.  And not in the way that spiders creep me out.  No, space creeps me out in a life-altering, faith-questioning, what-is-it-all-for kind of way.  If you ever want to thrust me into the throws of an existential crisis, start talking to me about the astrophysical mysteries of outer space.  

But I wasn’t always afraid of space.  Growing up, I watched the Jetsons on TV, constructed an A+ diorama of the solar system with styrofoam balls, and memorized “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” in elementary school (Rest in peace, Pluto) - all without questioning my existence on this planet.  But sometime in junior high school, I started questioning the whole “God” thing, and I started to wonder, If there is no God, then why are we here?  These sorts of heavy questions filled my mind with the realization of the emptiness of the universe and our insignificance within it.  Thus my fear of space was born.  

I feel much better about the God question than I did a decade ago, but my outer space anxiety has lingered.  So you’ll never see me watching those stupid Discovery Network shows on the apocalypse, the formation of the universe, and ancient aliens.  I’ve never made my screen saver into pretty images of galaxies.  And I don’t even want to see that new Steve Carrell comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  Count me out of anything whose synopsis starts with “As an asteroid nears Earth.”  No thanks.

Lately, though, someone has been loosening the straps on my straight jacket of space terror:  Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He’s an astrophysicist at the Hayden Planetarium who has appeared on several media outlets, including the Colbert Report and the Daily Show - during the latter, he easily triggers a hearty chuckle from the audience by pointing out that the animated earth in Jon Stewart’s opening credits is spinning in the wrong direction.  With his star-speckled neckties and charmingly geek-ish demeanor, Dr. Tyson’s enthusiasm and curiosity for all things Space is positively infectious. He endears me with fun physics facts like these, quoted from his Twitter account:

  • GettingMarried? June's full Moon crosses the sky in a low arc. Atmospheric dust creates an Amber hue. Behold the "HoneyMoon"
  • Astro-educators remain busy undoing damage caused by 1973 hit album "Dark Side of the Moon." Nope. All sides get sunlight.
  • More air molecules in breath of air than breaths of air in Earth's atmosphere. Some air you inhale was exhaled by Cleopatra.

So when a high school friend posted a video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson onto Facebook called “The Most Astounding Fact,” I watched it.  It turned out to be “one giant step” for Anne, helping me overcome my anxieties about outer space.  The irony of it all?  My random facebook friend and I shared two classes together way back when: High school physics and church confirmation classes.