Journey back with me 4,400 years.
It’s the year 2380 BCE. You’ve just returned to your Mediterranean seaside village after a day of hauling fish nets to shore. Your hands are blistered and raw, and you’ll be picking seaweed out of your hair for the next two days, and on top of that, a thin layer of salt crust covers your skin. But you barely notice any of this—you are too busy salivating as you watch three skewered sea bass smolder over hot coals.
Around you, your sprawling family is busy preparing a meal while children scurry about and young ones babble in mothers’ laps. Your curious nephew pokes you in the side, eager to play another game of Duck, Duck, Dodo Bird, while your teenage cousin, artistic and moody, is begging you to review his most recent drama, The Epic of Shmilgamesh. You don’t have time for this, and you’re getting hangry, so you shoo your nephew away and tell your cousin he should consider changing the name of his novel.
As evening settles in, the flickering light of the fire illuminates the faces of family and friends gathered around, eager to hear another story from the family elders. You love to close your eyes and let your imagination create the scenes described in each fireside tale—the drama, the mischief, the mystery whisking you away to another world entirely.
Next to you, your uncle yawns and stretches his arms up into the air causing an abrupt dispersion of odorous armpit fumes you’d rather do without; you shimmy in the opposite direction. The sun sets across the water and you move closer to the crackling fire. Waves lap the shore, and a cool wind blows life into the campfire, which seems to grow brighter as the sun’s light dims over the horizon. You lean toward the flames and rub your palms together for warmth.
Your stomach bulges in contentment, and your tired body sinks into the sand as you lay back to look up at the stars. Familiar patterns fill the sky, each with a story of its own. A bear chases its prey; a warrior holds a sword; a bull raises its head, flaunting its horns. A bright band of stars crosses the sky like a belt of sapphires and amethyst.
Crack. The fire sends sparks swirling around you, spiraling upward and out into the black sky. Snap. Your eyes follow a glowing spark as it rises up and into the sky, then sinks lower and lower, its dim red glow fading as it falls back to earth. The spark fizzles out in mid-air, but your gaze remains in the sky. There, directly behind where the spark had been moments earlier, up in the night sky, a blue streak rests suspended near the horizon, like a shooting star frozen in time. You squint in disbelief and point it out to others around the fire.
No one has an answer for what it could be. You have no tools to approach it or examine the phenomenon, so you simply stare. Excited and humbled, your mind races, pondering the unfathomable possibilities of this bright celestial streak. Could it be a spirit? A messenger sent from another world? Or, perhaps it’s the presence of a loved one. Could it be a sign from the gods? Could it be a tear in the fabric that holds the stars in place? And if so, what could cause such a magnificent tear? And what might fall through?
Last week I watched as C/2020 F3, or comet NEOWISE, orbited its way close to the sun, causing a brilliant release of gasses bright enough to be witnessed with the naked eye from Earth. A flaming ball of ice and rock about three miles wide, NEOWISE garnered global attention and cast our collective gaze upward, a momentary distraction from the nightly news roundup.
Through binoculars, I observed NEOWISE for a few minutes as it rested near the Big Dipper in the evening sky. While researching how to locate the comet, I came across stunning images of bright arcs and a glowing comet and thoroughly built up my expectations for something similar. However, through the glass of my binoculars, all I saw was a faint blue streak that resembled something like a distant star sneezing. As hungry mosquitos started to orbit me, I slumped back inside, slightly underwhelmed.
The last time the comet NEOWISE soared within sight of Earth was 4,400 years ago, as humans were crafting the earliest form of the written word, recording their stories and legacies for the first time. For those previous observers, NEOWISE would have looked much brighter and much more dramatic in the sky, given the lack of light pollution, disruptive gases, and the absence of the space junk orbiting Earth today.
I like to think that, had I seen the comet under those brighter conditions, my experience would have been deeper, more wonder-filled and awe-inspired. Maybe it would have been—or, maybe the mosquitos would still have driven me inside, no matter how bright the comet shined, because I live in the information age, and can wikipedia my way into pseudo-expertise in anything in a matter of minutes. Thanks to my technological prowess, I know that, when it comes down to it, NEOWISE is just a giant dirty snowball.
By passing close to the sun this year, NEOWISE has picked up speed and its orbit will grow wider. The comet will take longer to be visible from Earth again, but in 6,800 years it will be back. What will we know then about our solar system, about our universe, about dirty snowballs and constellations? Rather, in 6,800 years, which precious mysteries will remain unsolved?