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Editorial: It's in us all  

Mercury, July/August 1998 Table of Contents

"Excuse me, sir, but are you here for the big meeting?" I was tired and replied with a question: "You mean the astronomy meeting?" Jose Carlos, announced by the fellow's hotel nametag, answered with increasing excitement. "Oh, yes, sir, the meeting of the all the people to talk about the stars and planets and what's out there."

About eight hundred astronomers had gathered in San Diego, California, for the summer meeting of the American Astronomical Society. There were announcements and presentations of all sorts-the first image from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, observations through the Milky Way's Zone of Avoidance of heretofore unobserved galaxies, tales of planet-stripping by swollen red giants, even word of the newest stellar spectral class, L. These and so many other things, the kinds of things that make you gallop home to get to work on your own research.

But I paused and listened to Jose Carlos. My meal was getting cold, but here was someone who was excited. "You know, I was sitting with my friends a few days ago, and we were talking, and I asked them about what they thought was going on up there." The cadence of his speech accented the notion of something unseen above our heads. "But all they said was, 'Jose Carlos, you think too much.' " He had been looking at me, but now he shifted closer and spoke lower. "What do you think about this stuff." Stuff? So much I could say about what all the years of education and work have taught me - facts, equations, scarps, hydrostatic equilibrium, relaxation timescales, helium flashes, hot flashes ... and I was having one. This man wanted to know about the stuff.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Do you believe there are other things like us?" This question normally illicits from me a guarded response. Large-number statistics, numbers of dwarf stars, water as a plentiful ingredient, blah blah blah.

"Yes, I do." There, I said it succinctly. That was what this man wanted to hear. Oh, we then spent three or four minutes going over some of his and my reasoning, but that opened us to other topics. How large is this universe? "I mean, it's just too big, you know?" How do we study the universe? "How do we know what's going on out there?"

That cadence in Jose Carlos's speech too us to his final question. "Hey, do you think something really crashed out there in the desert?" Oh, no, I thought, as visions of Mulder and alien museums and grainy, forged saucers swept through me, but then I drew myself back up. This was just as good a question as any other.

"You mean outside Roswell, New Mexico? Yes, yes, I do. But do I think it was a spaceship from another world? No, I guess I don't." Jose Carlos looked saddened for a moment, and then he spoke.

"Ahh, but I bet you wish it had." He grinned, thanked me for my time, and I replied that the pleasure was mine. And as I pushed the door closed behind him, I tried to visualize him with his friends, sitting and talking. About life and love and, for him, what's out there.

When I left my office this evening, I looked skyward and saw nothing but darkness. A warm mist fell, and I tried to imagine that which lay abouve the murk. The stuff of Jose Carlos. The questions of existence, of meaning, they are in us all. Teased out by twinkling stars and crescent Moons.

James C. White II, Editor


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