I remember, when I was a kid, sitting at my grandmother's breakfast table and looking at the front page of the Journal and the Gemini pictures of the moon. I didn't just look; I stared. Years before the first astronauts walked on the surface, these were the closest pictures ever taken, and we got to see them in the paper about the same time the astronomers were seeing them. The pictures fascinated me, the craters and the crosshatch marks. I cut them out and put them in a scrapbook and studied them, fancying that I could find some secret wisdom in those round craters and right-angled markings.
But then Apollo 11 landed on there, and a couple of men walked around on the moon. I made another scrapbook, and studied it, too. Then Apollo 12, then 14, 15, and so on. I began to lose interest. After centuries of speculating about it being made of cheese or gold or quicksand, it turned out that the moon's just a desert. Like the Sahara or the Mojave, or like the Copper Basin, except without as many bugs. Then we sent another spacecraft to Mars, and damned if there's not another desert there, too, with lots of sand and rocks.
Scientists talked about it excitedly, and I listened. When a comet collided with Jupiter, I watched it on TV. I follow every solar eclipse and believe it every single time they call it a once-in-a-lifetime event. I am at least idly curious about whether there were ever oceans or rivers or microscopic life on Mars or any other planet.
But after a while I came to understand that space, beyond the Earth, is full of rocks and globs of liquid or gas. Some of them are on fire and some aren't.
That's fine, as far as it goes, but I have to admit I'm prejudiced in favor of things that breathe and scratch and say things that surprise you, no matter how small and insignificant they might be. That's my own bigotry, and I recognize it as a failing.
I know I should take more of an interest in space, and all the roundish rocks they find out that way. If scientists can identify the rocks that are likely to hit the earth, and somehow dissuade them from doing so, that would be a fine thing, and they deserve whatever earthly reward we can offer them. I'm grateful there are people interested enough in space to contend with that proposition.
I've never been to the Hayden Planetarium, but the main impression people keep relating about it is that they leave convinced of Earth's insignificance. Maybe, self-conscious about this deficiency of life out there, the planetarium folks use the sheer size of it to impress us, humble us, overwhelm us with how tiny earth is compared to nearly everything else.
When they tell me my home planet is insignificant in size, a tiny part of an unimpressive solar system that is, in turn, a tiny part of one of an uncountable number of galaxies, I believe them. But then I'm not sure what to do with this information.
By planetarium standards, it's not life, but size that matters, and by that standard, the Earth is an inconsiderable speck. By planetarium standards, all human efforts, and all downtown redevelopment projects, are pitiful exercises in vanity.
Remember that planetarium scene in Rebel Without a Cause? These teenagers go see a space show and they make fun of it until they witness a dramatized supernova blowing everything up. Stunned and hushed to realize their miniscule place in the universe, they go outside and drive their cars off a cliff. I'm not saying that would happen here.
I'm a limited intellect. At the end of the day, I'm interested in space not so much for what I can learn about all the roundish chunks that are on fire and the ones that aren't, but for what space might do for one lonesome block of State Street.
It's been over a year since Knox County leveled this interesting block of solid old prewar buildings, some of them passably historic, several of them better built than most of what we build today. Barely a block away is the brewpub. Less than two blocks away is Market Square. A couple blocks north is the Old City. There are more than a dozen bars and restaurants within easy walking distance. It's prime real estate, but it's been empty for a couple of years. Maybe all this space is what got people thinking about a planetarium.
But I think a trip to a planetarium can be such a sobering ordeal that local merchants might capitalize on it. It seems as if a debased crowd, suddenly convinced of its astral insignificance, emerging into the real sunlight from a planetarium, might be just the sort of crowd that needs a drink.
They might also experience a sudden craving for bacon cheeseburgers or pork ribs. They've just learned that their diets are irrelevant to the cosmos. If humans are insignificant, so are our vices.
If the cosmos has a commercial subtext, that's it, right there: eat, drink, be merry, and max out your credit card if you have to, for we're all insignificant either way. The pubs will make a killing.
I'm not sure what the planetarium's specific connection to Knoxville is, but I think, given the opportunity, we should force one. We could make a connection to UT's aerospace program and the astronauts who graduated from there. Or Oak Ridge's connections to the space program. Or that mysterious meteor that came screaming right down Gay Street in 1860.
As for a precedent, there's that professor who appeared downtown in the 1880s with a big telescope and told people he could see the Man in the Moon walking around up there. He sold tickets to see him at a quarter apiece. I hear he did pretty well.