Paul Carter's "The Enormous Absurdity of Nature": superb essay on space, the moon, religion, myth and science


Earlier in July, I attended the Kansas University Campbell Conference, the annual event at which the Campbell and Sturgeon Awards are given out (Little Brother was one of the Campbell winners this year). One of the honorees at the awards ceremony was Paul Carter, the historian and science fiction scholar. Paul was absolutely charming all weekend, a clever, twinkle-eyed presence in the room at all the various discussions, and then, at the very end of the event, he took the podium and delivered the closing lecture.

Called "The Enormous Absurdity of Nature," Carter's essay was one of the most beautiful, lyrical and thought-provoking pieces of writing I had encoutered; it examined the mythic, religious and scientific history of humanity's relationship to the Earth, to space, and to the moon. It epitomized everything great about scholarly writing -- the ability to show the unexpected connections between seemingly disparate subjects and to illuminate them in so doing.

Paul's son Bruce was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the manuscript for "The Enormous Absurdity of Nature" and to pass on Paul's consent to publish it here. I only regret that there isn't video of Paul's delivery, which was magnificent, practically a sermon (turns out Paul's father was a Methodist minister).

So here it is; posting it here is one of my most exciting Boing Boing moments for the year. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

During the week in the hot summer of 1994 when we celebrated

the 25th anniversary of the first human visit to Earth's moon,

broken chunks of Comet Shoemaker-Levy, carefully labeled from

A to W by watchers on Earth, crashed into the back side of

Jupiter. When the big planet rotated sufficiently to show Earth

observers the extent of the damage, Jupiter quite to their surprise

displayed visible blemishes, some of them more than Earth-sized,

on its colorful cloud-banded face. They shared space with the

long-extant Great Red Spot, which Jupiter watchers had had under

continuous observation for two centuries and more.

Jupiter's diameter is ten times Earth's. A comet hurtling

into that roiling gas ball, unless perchance it were to stir up

organic processes out of that primal soup, must be less than a

pinprick. But a similar solid body smiting the Earth would be

quite another case. Conceivably it could send the current lord

of creation, homo sapiens, to join his august predecessor the

dinosaur.

Dinosaurs, from the innocuous children's purple friend

Barney to the frightful raptors portrayed in Jurassic Park and

its sequels, have in the modern imagination to a great extent

displaced the dragon. What fascinates us about them is precisely

that they came, lived, flourished and died without any human

referent whatsoever. To one 19th century Victorian clerical

gentleman, that utter absence of human context posed a troublesome

question for traditional faith: "Who can think that a being

of unbounded power, wisdom, and goodness should create a world

The Enormous Absurdity of Nature (PDF, scan of original typescript)

The Enormous Absurdity of Nature (HTML, OCR'ed from original typed manuscript)

(Thanks, Paul and Bruce!)