11 years and three months ago, I started looking up again, at a night sky that, for the first time in probably 75 years, wasn’t riddled with the blinking lights of airplanes. Satellites still slid by, above the effect of the mess on earth. As readers know, I’ve been looking up ever since and increasingly my stargazing, the thing that lifts me up above the suffering intrinsic to existence, has become my anchor on earth.
Even ships at anchor can get swamped, and this evening, absorbing the news from Newtown, and thinking of the 27 dead, especially the 18 children, I have been shaken. Like so many others. Picking my daughter up from school today was profoundly sad, as like most parents I could viscerally imagine one day simply not having anyone waiting for me there. It could happen. For the parents of 18 kids in Newtown, it did today. The unthinkable sometimes simply happens. A new name enters into a growing public lexicon. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. What will be next?
Last night, I spent about 2 hours outside observing the Geminid meteors. I saw about 20 of them. Each one took my breath away. When you see a meteor streak to the sky, it is in an exhilerating beauty. It’s often just a sliding line of light, a very simple image, but when you catch sight of one, it is a wild ride. Your spirit rises as your mind comprehends what you are seeing, and then, just as you get used to this new definition of beauty, it ends abruptly. And when it ends you wish dearly it had streaked on just a little longer. Sometimes you can see a vapor trail behind the meteor, which fluoresces for a few moments like a ghost before fading forever.
I keep coming back to those meteors, today, as a way to try to figure out the sadness of Newtown in me.
My Bicycle Astronomy project, writ large, is about science education. I want to show people the night sky and uplift their minds, acquaint them with real, not simulated, beauty, and give them some basic building blocks from which they can start to assemble a realistic understanding of the universal contexts of their lives. It’s not a spiritual mission, though I know that real beauty, and the understaning of how it is structured, can definitely uplift spirits. I wish I could somehow uplift the shattered spirits in Newtown this evening.
Tonight my daughter went to a birthday party. Most of her friends didn’t know what happened today, so they could enjoy the evening without the crushing reminder of the suffering that, like dark matter to the universe, makes up much of human life. I was home alone with the news feed, and how I wish I could have been in a house full of rowdy children. But I tried to figure out the astronomer’s response, the response of the rational mind.
Someone tweeted that today is indeed not the day to discuss policy solutions like gun control or an overhaul of our mental health system, yesterday was, and I think that puts it quite well. Twitter discussion around the #guncontrolnow shows yet again the polarization of the American polity. Guns don’t kill, people do. Laws won’t stop people from getting guns. These are unhelpful and untruthful abstractions.
The rationale mind will look at what happened in Newtown today and try to come up with an effective policy to help insure this won’t happen again. Sadly, probably the easiest answer politically is to fortify our schools (and many urban schools already are). This would be sad, as we can’t fortify every public space, like movie theaters, offices, OTB parlors, without effectively militarizing our whole country. No, guns and mental health is what we should talk about.
I support the right to bear arms. But the rational thinker does not need to see things in black and white. It isn’t all guns or no guns. The questions the scientist will ask are: What can we do to lessen the likelihood that a mentally ill person will have access to guns? What can we do to ensure that mentally ill people will have enough oversight and care to lessen the chance of a rampage? And yes, the rational thinker will also ask: what can we do to protect our most vulnerable brothers and sisters in the event that our other policies fail to stop a rampage?
The scientist will not argue on the basis of ideology or dogma, nor will she perceive the issue as all or nothing. In addition, there is information, data, to consider. What do rampages have in common and what strategies exist to lessen their likelihood or limit the destruction? What do the experts say? What does the science show? And yes, rational thinking even extends to that seemingly taboo subject in this country of what seems to work in other nations with other laws. Facts are facts, and nations with stricter gun control have fewer massacres. The rational mind will want to know why, and what we can do better.
As a gun owner, as a father, as a scientist, as an American, as a rational human being, I beg my fellow Americans to start considering these questions. Surely we can prioritize the goal of reducing the number of young lives abruptly cut short, like a meteor that just dissappears, with such a seemingly beautiful path ahead of it.