'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Alvin & Ziggy

There being no stars to gaze upon, we arranged a tour of the SALT on its plateau just out of town. The Renaissance Man will probably be blogging about the sheer mechanical engineering of the telescope's intricacies of design. For me the most startling parts of the tour were two exhibits in the visitors' centre exhibition which precedes sight of the telescope. On the floor in the corner of a gallery sits a large, twisted mass of nickel and iron: it's a meteorite, a navel-stone which fell to earth somewhere in the Karoo. Almost reluctantly, I touched it then tapped its surface with my knuckles. It rang metallic, deep and true. There was a cold frisson to this encounter, both a sense of wonder that I was touching something left over from the formation of our solar system and which had been present out there for thousands of millioons of years, but also a feeling that, for all the strange trajectories of its wanderings, I was the unregarded piece of stardust whose course had led me to a brief encounter with something that would endure till the Big Rip.
Round the corner from the meteorite was the cast of a skull, the blank-orbited heavy-browed Australopithecus Africanus, possible ancestor of Homo Sapiens, who was perhaps wandering across the veld when the lump of nickel was still out beyond Pluto. The hominid family tree is such that you and I cannot claim that this individual is a common ancestor, but certainly a very distant cousin, someone with whom we share DNA and perhaps some degree of humanity. It's probably impossible to think your way into the mind of another creature, however close, without the certainty of the shared artefacts of consciousness such as language and a sense of self. But after the coldness of the stone, I was struck by a forceful sense of the reality of the individual, the selfness, that had inhabited the bones and given them life. No doubt s/he had looked up at the stars which gave birth to the twisted nickel a few feet away from us, though what shape and meaning s/he had seen in their patterns I cannot imagine.

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