I’d been wondering if I should write something to commemorate the occasion—“I’m going to keep trying until I get it right” came immediately to mind—and had decided not to.
I just don’t like journalists of any stripe appearing to think it’s all about them. Television news especially grates on me. What is there about providing the news that justifies a video of an immaculately groomed and dressed “reporter” staring into the camera and saying something?
(I think that would be on the order of my writing a story about the next school board or city council meeting and illustrating it with a photo of me.)
Typical local TV news lead-in, if they’d only be honest: “And now here’s a video of Steve standing in front of an empty field where we think something might have happened earlier today.”
So I was going to pass up my 40th, uh, anniversary. But then fate took a hand. Fate was the late Comet Ison, which got the full media hype before it raced around the sun Thanksgiving day and evaporated until there was no more left of it than the justification for a pass interference call.
Why is that fate? Because my very first story for The Reporter, in 1973, was also about a comet that turned out to be a dud.
Its name was Comet Kohoutek. It, like Ison, was supposed to be the “Comet of the Century.” Have you ever heard that phrase? It comes around quite often when media—especially 30-secondsand a-cloud of pixels TV news media—tries to report on a comet.
Kohoutek and Ison had a lot in common. Any time a new comet is discovered many months in advance of its approach to the inner solar system, and ultimately the sun, there’s some potential for it to put on a show for us on earth.
Sober and sensible inferences are drawn by astronomers, but if there’s a chance a comet might be bright and beautiful the hype machine kicks in.
Of course astronomers always say comets are notoriously unpredictable and with those presumed to be “new” comets we really have no clue what they will look like from earth until their close encounter with the sun.
Or, as astronomer David Levy famously put it: “Comets are like cats. They have tails and do whatever they please.”
But to the hype-machine none of that science stuff matters. It’s all about us and our “show.”
Kohoutek actually was fairly bright as comets go, barely reaching naked eye visibility. But the hype-machine was expecting so much more. I remember folk singer Burl Ives recorded a song about it. Yes, he really did. And this is from a letter to the editor in the Dec. 20, 1973, Reporter, the same one that carried my first story:
“Fifty times as large as the well-known Halley’s Comet and seven times as bright as the full moon, it will nearly double the enlightenment of the night sky.”
Uh, no. There wasn’t much “enlightenment” to be had there.
Then, just over two years later, the real Comet of the Century showed itself. Comet West was a bright, gorgeous, fan-shaped spectacle.
I remember watching it in awe several mornings rising in the east through Albert Timmerman Senior’s giant oak tree across the alley from my house.
But you didn’t hear much about it. West was a “come and go” quickie, happened so fast there wasn’t time for hype. Even Burl Ives was silent.
Ison was much anticipated and there was a general air of disappointment around when it essentially broke apart in its close encounter with the sun.
I even saw supposed news stories where that event was referred to as “tragic.”
Uh, no. The space shuttle disasters were tragic, the Philippines typhoon was tragic, loneliness and disease and pain are tragic.
Some rocks breaking apart 93 million miles away are not tragic.
The universe is not ordered for our entertainment.
There is no Comet Kardashian.
Sometimes I think it’s kind of cleansing to sit back and accept just how little we really know and I’m certainly preaching to myself.
I watched NASA scientists live- blogging Ison’s passage around the sun Thanksgiving Day and it became apparent nobody really knew what was happening when it failed to reappear as predicted. One with both a sense of humor and a good sense of himself, responded to a question from the public this way:
“Well, that’s a question for a comet expert....Oh wait, I guess that would be me!” firstname.lastname@example.org