Friday, January 11, 2013

I started reading a book about the Venus transits in the 1700's, which starts out by describing just what a difficult proposition it was when Edmund Halley proposed the observation project about 60 years before the first transit happened. Not only was there the obvious problem of transporting scientists from different countries across hostile waters and over unfriendly boundaries, although in the 1700's this was logistical challenge enough. More poignantly, no one at the time of Halley's suggestion had any sort of unified system of measurement, no way for these men to come back and discuss what they had measured at the ends of the earth. So they were proposing to measure the size of the solar system all using different lengths of string and dented tin cans. What Halley had done was suggest that science do the impossible, and it went out and cobbled the impossible together.

The faith of it is what amazes me, that these men who had rarely left their home towns had faith enough in the need of their mission to get on a boat and sail past the edge of the horizon. That they were going to measure the heavens or die in the attempt, that what they had set out to do was more important than politics or wars or technology. We were certain to figure it out eventually--we always had before.

Cautious by nature, I think about this a lot, the challenge of having faith in your own convictions and the inevitability of their outcomes. Are we sure we needed to know the size of the solar system? Couldn't we be content with know that it was there and wait for technology to catch up with our plans? But of course we couldn't, and we set out to fall into something we couldn't have predicted even if we had unified our measurements and synchronized our watches.

More to the point, I suppose, is Rudy Francisco: "If I was to wake up tomorrow morning and decide I really wanted to write about love, my first poem would be about you, about how I love you the same way I learned how to ride a bike: scared, but reckless, with no training wheels or elbow pads so my scars can tell the story of how I fell for you."

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