Starpixie?!?

From 1992 until 1998, I had the pleasure and challenge to work at the Griffith Observatory, first as a Museum Guide, then later as a Planetarium Lecturer. One of the “perks” of working at a place like Griffith is that occasionally you get to meet with the press. Sometimes they even print what you really said. 😉

When I met with Rip Rense, I had no idea who he was or what kind of article he might write. I have since learned that he is a semi-regular in the Los Angeles Times, typically in the Life & Style section, and that he has a real gift for creating vivid impressions with words. Of course, I might not be so favorably inclined toward the man had he not written such a lovely article in which I was featured, but he did and I am and the text of the article is below for you to enjoy, copyright laws be damned.

L.A. STORIES
Discovering the Comet That Lives In All of Us
By Rip Rense, Special to the Times

Los Angeles Times | Sunday March 9, 1997
Home Edition | Life & Style, Page 1

My headlights cut through the fog like weak music. I rolled down a window and rubbed a peephole on the clouded inside of my windshield. The cool, wet air that rushed in, mixed with the scent of sage and chaparral, tasted like Mentholatum. I urged the old sedan farther up the slick, winding road, alone, higher and higher into the Hollywood Hills. It was about 8:30.

I had to see a man about a comet.

The Griffith Observatory, named after a park named for a person who had no interest in astronomy, looked like Xanadu, Coleridge’s mythic, stately pleasure domes glowing fuzzily through the thick mist. I parked. A few couples strolled under lampposts, seemingly more phantom than flesh. My shoes crunched on the asphalt with an unreal volume, like they do in the movies.

I walked into the main hall, past that pendulum that never quite convinces me that the Earth really spins on its axis, and into the Planetarium. My man turned out to be a woman.

“I’m Bronwen Jackson.”* The voice carried a commanding, scholarly eloquence, yet emerged from the body of a smiling, effervescent pixie. She sat at the controls of the remarkable room, a wizard who would turn a mathematically curved stucco ceiling into galaxies, super novas, constellations and ultimate mystery. She looked like the pilot of a ship. A star ship. I told her who I was.

“You have some questions about comets?” she asked, signing extra-credit slips for schoolkids filing out after the evening sky show, “Comet Watch.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Specifically, this Hale-Bopp thing that’s coming in March. Every second movie or TV show is talking comet and asteroid doomsday. It’s millennium madness.”

“Oh, tell me about it,” she said. I did.

“The ‘X-Files’-type radio shows and tabloids,” I said, “would have us all think that the Hale-Bopp Comet is either, A) an intergalactic ship driven by nasty guys with big frontal lobes; B) the religious icon of choice returning to save the saved and damn the damned; C) a real comet that’s going to take out L.A., or at least Disneyland; or D) Elvis.”

Jackson said that Hale-Bopp was none of the above. That it is an amok ball of ice and silicate and carbon whipping around the solar system. That it will come near enough only to give us earthlings one humbling sky show. Still, she added, humanity shouldn’t rest easy. There are millions of undocumented asteroids and comets that could send us packing, like one did to the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Day-before-yesterday, science time.

“Then there’s the Swift-Tuttle comet, due here in July 2126,” she added, with a raised eyebrow. “That comet will actually cross the earth’s orbit and miss us by 34 days! We’ll have to keep an eye on that one.”

Well, someone else will. I figured to be more than 34 days away from Swift-Tuttle in 2126. Thirty-four days and a dimension or two.

Jackson escorted me into a quiet little office far from the buzz of the observatory’s Tesla Coil, the kind of “lightning machine” that permed the hair of the Bride of Frankenstein in the old Universal flicks. She perched on a tabletop, with her legs folded under. I sat below, in a chair, like a pupil at the feet of the Dalai Lama.

Jackson told me many things: that comets used to be called “bearded stars”; that her first name is 12th century Welsh for “hair black as a raven, skin white as a dove”; that she’s an amateur astronomer–“star shine junkie” was the trade lingo–who knows her way around the heavens better than a lot of sky jockeys with sheepskins.

She’s been hosting planetarium shows for two years, she said, the only female on the crew. The work is nice; she still thrills at the looks of awe-struck understanding on the faces of 10-year-old girls and middle-aged men as they grasp the size of a galaxy. She’s exasperated that the current planetarium show meant to enlighten folks about the Hale-Bopp Comet and its brethren still hasn’t stopped all the talk of an impending real-life invasion by octopus men from Neptune.

“It makes me want to beat my head against the wall,” she moaned. “Frankly, if there are any aliens following along, little green men, I wish they would come by for tea so we could resolve this once and for all.”

I agreed. Jackson gave me more of the lowdown on this fugitive Hale-Bopp character. It’s huge. It makes Halley’s look like a golf ball. At the same distance from Earth, it was a thousand times brighter than Halley’s was.

Its nucleus is estimated at 20 miles across. It was last seen in 2200 BC and will not venture our way again until 4360. It is visible now, will remain plainly so through May, and will be closest to Earth on March 23 (123 million miles away).

It’s traveling about one degree per day (two full moon widths), with an itinerary taking it across the constellation Cygnus (the swan, or “Northern Cross”) in early March, Lacerta (the lizard) in mid-March and Andromeda (a mythical Greek character) at month’s end. It was named after a couple of astronomers who discovered it simultaneously: Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp.

Jackson talked more than a Sunday preacher full of coffee. She told me that Hale-Bopp is one of a trillion bits of icy debris that never managed to join and form a planet, that they all hang out in some fantastic thing called the Oort Cloud, named for Dutch astronomer Jan Oort. Once in a while, star gravity throws one of the ice balls out of whack and into a solar orbit, and –voila!– you get a comet.

If you’re not one to stargaze, she said, you can make your own comet at home. The recipe: cup of water, charcoal briquette (cut up), dash of ammonia (for flavor), dry ice. Put in a plastic bag, squeeze, open . . . and instant heavenly body. How you sling it into a solar orbit is your problem. About the only thing Jackson couldn’t tell me was why so many comets have funny names (Arend-Roland, Ikeya-Seki, Shoemaker-Levy 9, etc.).

Then she said something that stopped me cold: that I was part comet. And you too. It reminded me of a verse I’d recently come across: “We’re made from space, we’re full of stars! pulled from a hat, plucked form a quasar. . . .” It made no sense to me when I read it, but it started to ring true as the lady expounded:

“The belief that we try to put forth in the show is that cometary impact contributed to the amount of water on the Earth. When the Earth initially formed, we had a much higher degree of carbon dioxide. It was only after life formed in the oceans that the little one-celled creatures started giving off this weird form of pollution called oxygen, which led to the ozone layer, the Earth’s sunscreen. Which led to multi-celled organisms that could crawl out on the land and not get fried.”

Which led to TV anchorpeople. It was all a little heady for me, but I figured comets for the spice that made this atmospheric soup palatable enough for humans and tigers, et al., to breathe.

“Dazzle me some more,” I said.

“I went into the mountains to see the Hyakutake Comet last year,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen planets and shooting stars, eclipses–solar, lunar, whatever–and this thing just knocked my socks off. I’m looking at this fuzzy ball, with this huge, nebulous, eerie tail streaming away from it, and in just a few minutes, I could actually see it move against the background of the stars! It was freaky. It was astonishing.

“Hale-Bopp should be–cross your fingers, knock on wood–as dramatically visible as Hyakutake, if not better. I can’t guarantee it. There are no guarantees in this universe, but we’re expecting a really good show.”

I thanked her and said good night. I wondered if her eyelashes fluttered a little as we shook hands. Or maybe mine had.

A few minutes later, as the old sedan rolled me down the hill and out of Griffith Park, I thought more about Bronwen Jackson, and Hale-Bopp, and human beings, and how our fates are all hopelessly intertwined. My headlights looked like comet tails in the fog.

* * *

*My last name has changed since this article was written,
but rest assured, it’s still me!

B


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