Breakfast At The Titan Cafe
I have always felt the promise of adventure every time I get up at some ungodly hour of the morning. My guess is this is because my reptilian brain (the rest of my brain is still asleep) associates crawling out of bed at 3:30 a.m. with piling into the car at 4:00 to get to the airport for an early morning flight to parts unknown, or to loading myself into the car to go fishing in some far away mountain stream.
This morning, the promise of adventure came in the form of breakfast on the planet-moon Titan, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, that grand edifice about halfway up Central Park over there on the west side.
Some weeks ago, on the museum's website, anyone who was interested was invited to show up at the Rose Center for Earth and Science entrance of the museum at 5:00 a.m. ("yes, 5:00 in the morning" they made clear on the website) to join members of the staff in watching (what they thought at the time) would be the first pictures of Saturn's now-celebrity-status moon, Titan, as those pictures were released by the European Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens team. As we know, the first pictures were actually released yesterday afternoon (Eastern Standard Time), but oh well, my friends and I thought. There was still going to be free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate on offer. And maybe something interesting would happen.
I confess I was a little afraid that when I and my two companions showed up there would only be the three of us and a couple of slightly embarrassed scientists standing around. I think the staff of the museum feared that as well.
When the car we'd hired pulled up to the Rose Center entrance at about 4:45 a.m., there were already a few people milling about inside the glass doors of the lobby. Hunh, I thought. At least we know they weren't lying about all this. "Our fellow geeks," my friend Sandy mumbled from the seat next to me. My friend Robert made good with the driver, and the three of us joined the fifteen or so other early morning Space Fans inside the lobby. The real shock here, to me, was the degree to which everyone looked awake. It was almost as if something interesting was about to happen.
Our primary hosts for breakfast on Titan were:
- Dr. Laura Danly, Senior Manager, Astrophysics Education, Rose Center for Earth and Space;
- Dr. David Grinspoon, Principal Scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Adjunct Professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Science at the University of Colorado -- an astrobiologist, and author of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life;
- Dr. Neil Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director, Hayden Planetarium; and,
- Dr. Denton S. Ebel, curator of the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites.
Not to mention, of course, a surprisingly large and therefore necessarily unnamed number of museum support staff, not a one of them looking in the least bit sleepy.
The lobby of the Rose Center began to fill alarmingly as the time approached 5:00 a.m. I began to get that slightly panicky, noodgy feeling I sometimes get when people are milling about waiting to be allowed into a movie theater. Will my friends and I get to sit together? Will we get good seats? How many Old Farts will I have to elbow out of my way to get to the seat I want? And, you know, other musings of the petty soul.
From the lobby we could gaze down into the Cullman Hall of the Universe, a giant pit beneath the Planetarium that resembles a nest into which the Great Egg of the planetarium itself appears about to settle. A giant screen (one of those that looks like somebody has stacked a bunch of T.V.s on top of and next to each other) dominated one end of "the nest". A number of other "AstroBulletin" screens (wide-screen high definition T.V.s) were distributed about the rest of the hall. An optimistically large (but as it turns out, not overly optimistic) number of folding chairs crowded the floor of the hall. Across the abyss, against the far wall, stood the real object of my concern at that moment: several urns of coffee, hot chocolate, and hot water for tea. There were heaps of muffins, bagels, donuts. Naturally, nothing for a poor Celiac like myself. There never is at events like this. But I am not bitter. I am just a little bit hungrier than you are, is all.
Finally... finally... they let us past the ropes and we descended into that Place of Knowledge. I hurried ahead because I am that way, and selected three of the most opportunely located chairs and quickly claimed them. My friends Robert and Sandy sauntered up, appearing mildly -- but only mildly -- impressed with my squatting skills.
Seats securely claimed, I hurried to the coffee machines.
I'm bad at estimating crowd size, but I would say there must have been 100-150 of my fellow geeks there. The mood was excited and a bit giggly, a combination of sleep-deprived minds and unfocussed anticipation, I suppose. Soon we were all settled, huddling over our hot liquids. The program began.
I won't go over the science we learned this morning. I imagine that by the time you read this, you will have read about most of it in the mainstream press. I would, however, like to mention two moments that stood out for me during the ESA press briefing.
The first was near the end of the introductory remarks by a man whose name escapes me, but who clearly seemed to be The Main Man, the guy in charge of the mission. Speaking of the remarkable success of the mission so far, he suffered a brief hitch in his emotional get-along... which is to say, he seemed (very briefly) on the edge of tears. Pride. Joy. And that indescribable emotion many of us space geeks seem to have as we gaze with admiration upon the accomplishments of these brave little machines we build and send to distant worlds. They are our children, after all. They carry with us our dearest hopes for exploration and discovery. They go where we wish dearly we could go, but can't yet. When they work the way they are supposed to work, they take our hearts from us and hold them in little mechanical hands. We love them so much. We are so proud of them. Go, you blessed and beloved little machines, go.
It occurs to me just now (duh) that we are the first human beings in all of history to feel this love for mechanical children. Our species has never before been able to build something that could carry our dearest wishes into space. No wonder we swell with pride when they troop on through that unimaginably hostile wilderness out there. They do their best, usually without complaint, to do everything we ask of them. They are brave (even though we know they are not). They are generous and self-sacrificing (even though we know they cannot possibly be those things). They try as hard as they can (even though we know they are programmed to do that). We give them baggage they can't possibly carry.
But, after all, isn't that what we have always done with those we raise up to be our heroes? We fill them up with all that we long for them to be. To make fun of our admiration for these little machines is to make fun of the human spirit itself, I think. I sometimes cry in the telemetric presence of one of these brave little machines, and I am not the least bit ashamed of my supposedly foolish, delusional tears.
The second moment that sticks with me came during the part of the press briefing where they played a recording of some sort of acoustical instrument that measured, I believe, deceleration of the little machine as it approached the surface. As you can tell from my incompetently expressed setting of this scene, I didn't quite understand what we were listening to, but the sound was in itself both delightful and dramatic. The scientist presenting this bit of the briefing was grinning impishly and waving his hands about whenever the pitch changed -- as if conducting a very strange little orchestra. The sound whirled and dived and then finally soared upward and ended abruptly in a musical button. The scientist beamed at the audience. Applause and laughter filled the room.
It reminded me of that moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind during which Lacombe (Truffaut) demonstrates for a hall half-filled with Science Types (and mysterious people in sunglasses and red jumpsuits) the sign-language that will accompany the five musical tones. After the demonstration, his audience breaks into delighted applause.
I never really understood that moment. Why are they giving him delighted applause? It's not that big a deal.
Well, this morning I finally understood. They break into delighted applause because it is a moment that calls out for delighted applause. That's all. That's all you need to know.
Maybe that moment in that movie is one of those things that simply can't be captured in fiction. Maybe it isn't just that truth is stranger than fiction; maybe it's also that sometimes fiction simply cannot capture a particular moment of truth. Nothing against fiction or anything, I love fiction, but I don't think it is capable of condensing hundreds of thousands of years of human longing into one "applause moment". It could be that we really need the real thing for that. But I don't know... I really don't know why I felt like applauding in delight at that moment this morning. But I did.
It was just a marvelous morning. There were a great many other moments of delight -- like during the discussion afterward when Dr. Grinspoon pointed out features in one of the pictures that "clearly indicated" a medium-sized city. This was disputed by Dr. Tyson, of course, who argued that the features could not possibly indicate a city. What we were looking at was "obviously" a landing-strip of some sort.
Yeah, sometimes it pays to get up early in the morning. I don't think being the early bird got me any worms today, but it did get me some memories that have me a little misty-eyed as I sit here recalling them. That's worth not sleeping in on a Saturday morning.
And bless your heart, little Huygens. Bless your brave little mechanical heart.