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Message from the Comet

Phenomena like the comet Hale-Bopp can reinspire us to communicate with and enlighten one another.

On a windy, bitterly cold night in March, some 2,000 people crowded the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., to check out the comet Hale-Bopp from a telescope. Only after hours of standing in lines did some of us learn that the show was equally good through binoculars. Still, the mutual interest created something of a party atmosphere; we enjoyed one another while we waited.

Another evening, after disembarking from a commuter bus, I startled upon glimpsing the comet-which caused a woman walking past to stop, look up, and begin chatting with me about its rare visit as we trudged along to our homes. And a third night, when my family and I took a quick trip to witness the celestial object in the solitary darkness of the nearby countryside, another family seemed to materialize out of nowhere. With our kids sleeping in the cars, we parents stood in a field surrounded by spring peepers and just looked up, sharing our sense of awe. Hale-Bopp, shining so strongly after a 4,200-year hiatus, provided a common ground, so to speak, for people to breach their usual boundaries.

Most often Technology Review focuses on the implications of technology, the application of science, an emphasis with which I am delighted. No matter whether science rings one’s chimes or not, I tell people unfamiliar with the publication that our magazine is an important read because of the omnipresent role of technology in our lives. And unless we consider its ramifications we have no hope of controlling them. I am a practical person, happy to be grounded in the topics Technology Review delves into repeatedly. Still, once in a while a natural event such as Hale-Bopp stirs up in me-and obviously in huge numbers of others as well-a very different set of emotions.

At Technology Review we refer to wonderful stories about pure science as “brighteners,” and we enjoy presenting them. Extending the term’s use a bit, I’d like to suggest that all of us remember the importance of paying homage to brighteners of nature: the booming thunderstorm, the sparkling meteor shower, the unexpectedly heavy snowfall, even the leafing out of a tree in spring or the curling of a woolly-bear caterpillar on a path.

How do we respect such events? First, we need to remember to stop long enough to attend to them. Kids do so all the time-sometimes to parents’ exasperation-but we adults are often too busy churning through the details of our day-to-day responsibilities. (The growing amount of information we must process doesn’t help-see “Data Smog: Surviving the Info Glut” by David Shenk in Technology Review ’s May/June 1997 issue.)

Stopping provides significant benefits. At one level, notable natural occurrences can help us center our lives; Hale-Bopp led me to consider the vastness of time and in turn renewed my perspective on my usual activities. As many of us know from experience, striking natural events can also lead us into rewarding paths of inquiry: scientific, aesthetic, or some measure of both. And nature’s brighteners can help us to remember our shared connections and to communicate a little more with one another.

The possibilities for investigation and communication are even broader, I believe. Perhaps we-and here I particularly mean Technology Review readers, who generally have backgrounds in science and engineering-can best pay tribute to natural phenomena by helping others explore and understand them. The local school system is one obvious outlet: either directly or by working with their teachers, we can help kids to talk about clouds and eclipses and life in ponds and to start down their own paths of scientific and aesthetic inquiry. Alternatives to schools include volunteering at museums, after-school programs, nature centers, or camps-perhaps helping such institutions to develop programs or learn the latest scientific thinking in particular field. Or we can query editors of publications intended for popular audiences about writing articles-crisply, cleanly, and with a sense of storytelling and what’s new-about topics that stir us and might similarly affect readers. If we’re really feeling feisty, we can even try to interest politicians in science-knowledge that could have subtle and positive effects on laws and policies.

Leaders in the scientific community can exert a particularly salutary, and multiplier, effect. For example, Leroy Hood, the founder of the Department of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington and inventor of the machine used for sequencing genetic information, is encouraging researchers in his large laboratory to spend 5 to 10 percent of their working hours teaching primary-and secondary-grade teachers.

Alan Hale-whose name, because of his role as one of its discoverers, graces the comet that recently visited us-favors science education himself. The founder and director of an organization concerned with providing the public with research opportunities in astronomy and space science, he has decried, in an interview with the New York Times, a general lack of scientific understanding, connecting the phenomenon with what he sees as too little support for science.

We should not cower under the mantle of being too busy to undertake extracurricular activities involving science and aesthetics. Almost everyone has plenty going on, but how else are we to make a difference in the period we have on earth? We can thank Hale-Bopp for reminding us how little time we have to act as well as wish upon a star.

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