Weird Science

Weird Science
When the Sky Comes out of the Ground

Ray Huling | 18 Mar 2008 14:00
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The blogs convey an atmosphere of adventurous fiction. It's pleasurable to imagine how one might fight zombies or invent a Space Drug Cocktail for Space AIDS. The bloggers, like Pravda, serve up a kind of agitprop. They fantasize about struggling against a great evil, as you might fantasize about spending lottery money or Pravda fancies itself overcoming capitalism.

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These fantasies depend on there being something supernatural or conspiratorial about the illness in Peru. They need science to fail in the face of it. Lovecraft understood that science horrifies us not when it fails, but when it succeeds. The successes of science show us what is truly unknown.

The unknown means everything here. Lovecraft called fear the oldest and strongest emotion, and fear of the unknown the oldest and strongest fear. He didn't mean 'unknown' in the simple sense of "inexplicable"; he meant that scientific explanation reveals an alien, inhuman world. Science shows us how little we really know. That's the terror of the unknown. The idea that a meteorite could drop out of the sky, kick up some poison steam, and make us sick for no reason - that idea is worse than zombies. It's worse than capitalism.

When I interviewed scientists about the meteorite, they took a different approach than the blogs. The statement I heard most from them was: "I don't know." They seemed unperturbed about the whole affair. They talked about "geometrical effects" and "weak latitude dependence" and referred me to other experts. They accepted the meteorite with curiosity, but also perfect equanimity, which seemed reasonable to me.

But what if they're wrong?

The Horrifying Twist
Every alert reader of this article knows what happened on February 21: The United States shot down one of its own spy satellites, because its orbit had started to decay. The bus-sized thing was coming home to Earth. The government feared that, if it crashed in a populated area, not only might it crush people, its fuel might make them sick.

Holy shit.

The Lockheed-Martin USA-193 satellite used hydrazine fuel, not plutonium. FEMA released its "First Responder Guide for Space Object Re-Entry" on February 14. The guide advises that exposure to hydrazine may result in ... nausea, headaches, rashes.

Professor Burleson had thoughts on this satellite, as well, saying "someone should by now have a pretty good understanding of the decaying orbit itself and the space-to-ground probable trajectory, though what we hear in the news is that nobody does know this." This could mean, suggests Burleson, that the government knew damn well where the big bastard was coming down, but they didn't want to admit that it was Cleveland or Beijing or Paris.

Well, I suppose they would have admitted to Paris.

Let's take this a little further. In "The Colour Out of Space," the protagonist stumbles across the story of the weird meteorite while surveying land for a new reservoir. After the requisite dose of horror, the surveyor notes that the state of Massachusetts will proceed with plans to dam up the valley where the tainted impact site lies and where a portion of the alien entity still resides in an old well. The tale's lingering dread comes from the thought that drinking water will soon cover the "blasted heath" created by the meteorite. Think about that: people made sick by water fouled with a poison from outer space.

Now all of that might give folks pause, but when I brought up the latest American satellite trouble with the scientists, we just laughed and laughed. It's all just a funny coincidence. Isn't it?

Ray Huling's a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. He can't wait to escape from New York back to Lovecraft Country.

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