The spacecraft Planck is the coldest known object in space, including dust and gas.
My father, hands on his walker, stays seated in his chair with the fabric-covered arms so sweat-soiled the pattern has been erased. The television shows darkness. He says, “You try” as if I might resurrect the guests he says he watches until he sleeps. This morning, the second week of weather too warm even for July, his lawn is infested with a wide-spread eczema of flowering weeds. Every window in his house with no air conditioning is closed and locked.
As always, I am working at faith. Stars, I’ve just read, must be three billion years old in order for complex life to evolve on one of their planets, and even then, need the luck of the Goldilocks Effect, the neither too hot nor too cold porridge of atmosphere stirred with water and age.
Years beyond gravity, Voyager II, launched in 1977, carries a golden record with sounds and images that are meant to represent us to residents of distant planets. It speeds that news toward aliens we have imagined since Ezekiel, the four-faced, four-winged creatures he witnessed setting early standards for extraterrestrial invaders.
The Time Throat
Along the Susquehanna River, last week, a man I’d worked with once chattered me through thistle and milkweed to where the water widened and turned shallow enough to surface what looked to be a bridge of stones. A month earlier, the water running higher, an evangelist concentrating on where his feet were placed could have seemed a temporary Christ, but my former colleague meant me to believe in a sort of red carpet for aliens who are speeding to us via a time tunnel, one that will open next to the stones he and other believers had laid.
A hundred years ago, photographs of cardboard cutouts of fairies copied from a children’s book were taken by two young girls, Elise Wright and Frances Griffiths. They were circulated through the celebrity of Arthur Conan Doyle as proof of the reality of fairies. A century later, the heavens are clouded by visitors from other galaxies. Abductions, now, are so common only the friends and relatives of the snatched are excited. In each story, the kidnapped undergo a physical exam. In every saga, their possessions are taken—a watch, a cell phone, a wallet. The items are hoarded by the aliens as if they were relics to be worshipped like a shroud, holy splinters, or the bits and pieces of saints and martyrs.
Planck in Space
The space ship Planck has been traveling for years on a mission to measure what remains of the Big Bang’s transformational light. By now it is the coldest object in space, near absolute zero, its name making me look up Max Planck, the physicist, his theorem I memorized in high school. I find a comment attributed to Planck’s teacher in 1880: “Physics is finished, young man. It’s a dead end street.” Now, when I try to decipher Planck’s Constant, the way to measure the tiniest spark of energy, calculated to 10-34 given off by the minutest bits of matter, I feel helpless.
Our Italian tour guide, last summer, cited the wealth of the Catholic church, how it has supported the reassuring propaganda of religious art. For centuries here, she said, just the one choice, and led us into our third cathedral of the day, where, she said, we would see parts of St. Catherine, a virgin, dead, like Christ, at thirty-three, but blessed, during her lifetime, with the stigmata.
In October 1955, in Kentucky, when the unearthly light wavered across the McGehee’s harvested field, the little green invaders were armed. They laid a perimeter around the farmhouse, and unprovoked, fired their alien bullets, but luckily the McGehees owned four shotguns and didn’t hesitate to use them, saving themselves and presumably, us, the green midgets retreating to blast off for a planet where household defense has been outlawed, some peace-loving place easily conquered, its inhabitants nothing like the honest, sober, and religious McGehees, who swore on their personal, family Bibles every fantastic word was true.
The Time Throat
The universe, my former colleague said, is scattered through with throats, and one of those mouths, miraculously, empties here. For work, years ago, he taught two languages; for faith, he spoke as if he were certain that I was worthy of secrets. “Like a worm hole?” I said, looking at the sky above the Susquehanna as if a funnel cloud of calm might descend.
In Roswell, New Mexico, in the UFO museum, there are models of thin-faced, enormous-eyed aliens like the ones who supposedly crashed there in 1947. In photos, a host of shadows and glare alongside the testimonies of sober pilots and recent Presidents—Jimmy Carter claiming the space ship was big and bright and moon-sized, Ronald Reagan’s plane buzzed by a speeding white light. In the gift shop, an alien ceramic teenager; an alien head lamp; alien bobble heads, large and small; all of them with the same emaciated, black-eyed face.
Carl Sagan added his lover’s pulse and breath to Voyager’s golden record, recording the brainwaves of Ann Druyan, who concentrated on what it’s like to fall in love—kisses and laughter. Footsteps. Heartbeats. She trusted the aliens to understand human passion after they cracked the mysterious code for the physiology of desire.
As if, after death, her body could be Photoshopped, my father, for twenty-five years, has prepared to reunite with the version of my mother he touched before my birth, believing that he, in turn, will be seen by her as young and fit.
St. Catherine wrote of experiencing a “mystical marriage with Jesus.” She claimed to receive Communion directly from Christ and chose to abstain from eating because fasting led to holiness. Her frequent, prolonged refusals of food likely led to her death.
Planck in Space
Millions of miles from here, the spaceship Planck is equipped to show the origin of ourselves with instruments so perfect they could, from Earth, detect the heat of a rabbit upon the moon.
“Life exists on other planets and we will find it within twenty years,” the scientist Andrei Finkelstein said last year. He explained that ten percent of known planets circling suns in the galaxy resemble Earth, so many chances for life on such planets that it was impossible not to believe the aliens thrived. Furthermore, he said, the aliens are most likely to resemble humans with two arms, two legs and a head. Finkelstein made the remarks at the opening of the international symposium called “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence” in St. Petersburg.
By the time Voyager left the solar system, Sagan was years dead. Druyan, unhooking her lace-trimmed bra or sliding off a slip, would recollect how Sagan imagined the lingerie of another planet, how the era of intimate contact would begin when her recorded desire, at last, approached the distant, intelligent discoverers.
The Time Throat
“Worm hole is such an uninformative name,” my former colleague said, so dismissive that I kept to myself what I’d recently read, that there was a theory, now, that employed worm holes of “Planck length,” a distance of about 10-20 the diameter of a proton. Thus, the writer had said, “extremely small.”
Planck in Space
If everything goes as planned, the instruments on board the spaceship Planck will draw up a map of the Cosmos as it appeared thirteen billion years ago, as close to the moment of “first light” as is possible. That first light is also known as “relic radiation.”
My father shows me a photograph labeled “McConnell’s Mills, 1939,” my mother in a bathing suit, thin and pretty, smiling. He turns to “1940, North Park,” my mother holding a tennis racket, a sagging net behind her. In another, dressed in the same short skirted tennis outfit, she is seated at a picnic table holding a slice of watermelon with both hands.
In the Basilica of San Domenico, the guide said St. Catherine was so important there was a rivalry between cities for her remains. Her body, she said, is elsewhere now, but the head and thumb are here before you, her face still well-preserved through the compassionate grace of God. We shuffled past the sarcophagus roped off from the eager who might be tempted to touch. St. Catherine’s thumb was displayed close by. Her head was shown so far away I had to squint to see it clearly.
Stephen Hawking has warned humans to beware of alien contact in a recent Discovery Channel series titled, “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.” The episode with his caution imagines a scenario of alien life forms coming to Earth in enormous spaceships, on the hunt for resources after draining their planet dry. Hawking says that “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be the same as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” He says that humans should cease efforts to contact alien life, such as the 2008 NASA experiment that sent the Beatles song “Across the Universe” into space.
In its own box, what looks to be the original from the studio, a framed photograph of my mother in her wedding dress, November 27, 1941. The war is ten days away. My father says, “I want you to know where I keep these.”
The spaceship Planck will detect what remains of that original light when only temperature existed, tracking theory to the bright beginning of everything. I imagine the rabbit on the moon, the probe that could dive bomb it like some inter-terrestrial falcon a merciless exhibit for the Natural History of First Things, the solid sky plunged into light that lasts, we’re told, forever, so close, now, to God or absence, we watch the chilled instruments for the precise moment of miracle.
In Siena, while we filed by the boxed thumb of St. Catherine, we watched one of our tour companions, the woman who photographed each meal she ate, slip Euros through a slot to light a candle, and we averted our eyes as she knelt to pray after dipping her fingers into an ornate basin and moving her dripping hand through the sign of the cross.
The Time Throat
“My daughters are grown now,” my former colleague said. “They are believers. Like me, they expect to be the first humans seen.” When I stayed quiet, he said, “Haven’t you always wished to know every secret?” so rapt with anticipation I listened as if he’d had those daughters hide nearby to begin the song of Sirens, the summer air above the river shimmering for cosmic sailors lured by their ravenous need for worship.
“It’s the faces on that thing that keep me company,” my father says, holding the photograph album, but looking at the blank television screen while I twist dials and push buttons as if I might bring it back to life. “I just need to see them. I don’t need the sound to come back.”
Now that science has stripped nearly everything bare of awe and threatens to make us soulless, our mind’s electricity must be deciphered when that disc is played, proving that others dream beyond themselves, that somebody else longs to be entered for love or pleasure. Voyager II, in late 2012, is nearly ten billion miles from the sun. It will be 40,000 years before it approaches another planetary system. An eternity from us, someone will go home, centuries from now, and undress to embrace, joyous with learning those life-forms that rely upon only two legs share the ecstasy of love.