The emerging picture of the early Solar System does not resemble a stately progression of events designed to form the Earth. Instead it looks as if our planet was made, and survived, by mere lucky chance, amid unbelievable violence. Our world does not seem to have been crafted by a master craftsman. Here too, there is no hint of a Universe made for us. -Carl Sagan, from Pale Blue Dot
I am currently reading Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, and I have just finished the chapter called “Routine Planetary Violence.” This chapter highlights the violent history of the solar system, and the creation of rings around the huge gas giants. The thing that inspired this writing was the part about the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994.
Unlike many of the events that Sagan recalls in this book, this event happened within my teen years and was all over the news of the day. So I remember it distinctly. I was 14 years old, in the midst of my fundamentalist Christian homeshool lessons from Christian Liberty Academy. I was a committed Christian and a creationist at the time, and was used to interpreting just about everything in terms of Christian belief and the Bible. Including the Shoemaker-Levy 9 incident. So, to my scientifically interested but poorly educated mind, this “shaking of the heavens”* was part of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and a sign of the coming rapture. I thought it was a confirmation of the Bible.
Of course now I know it ain’t so, and it boggles the mind that I ever thought such things. But it is not surprising that I did because it was all I knew. The Christian leaders and teachers I trusted talked in such terms, and I was much more likely to distrust the adults that give a more simply scientific account of such events. After all, there are those out there who would deceive us…unfortunately at the time I was mistaken about which set of people deserved the label of “deceiver.”
The Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter really was a perfectly straight-forward, and basically routine (on the timescale of about 5 billion years), scientific happening. I wonder if I would have ever realized that if I had not gone on to get a decent college education and find out the scientific facts of the matter. It reminds me of a woman who came to speak with (actually more like scold and preach at) me at the KY State Fair. She said she knew someone who had died at a hospital and had been brought back to life, and that this confirmed that God was real (or something like that). When I asked her about it (“Did her brain actually die?”) she looked like no one had ever questioned her story before and said that her friend’s heart had stopped momentarily and then had been restarted. Of course, a person’s heart can stop without them dying, as long as it is started back up before tissues start dying of oxygen deprivation. At the end of our conversation she just huffed something about atheists having no hope and stormed away. It’s amazing how a person’s mind can be so clouded by religious mythology and superstition that they really can’t see what’s really going on around them. I was a teenager during the Shoemaker-Levy event but I got over the superstitious thinking by the time I was out of college. This woman was middle-aged. I can only guess that, even that that age, this kind of thinking must be all she knows.
*A reference to Mark 13:25