There are words in many languages for ‘other place’: the Chinese have wei guo: outside country; the Scots have a neat phrase to cover ‘locational outsideness’ of all kinds: outwith. The placename Wales is simply the (corrupted) Anglo-Saxon for foreigner. But alien is something rather more extreme, and that’s how this rock feels. Too heavy for its size, as if it carries with it some physics that runs parallel to that of this universe. Glossy and smooth like glass, yet somehow to solid, too rock-like, to be glass. Not a hint of translucency: a dark black-brown. It is otherplace, a piece of elsewhere, formed 5 billion years ago and never re-formed, making it older not only than any rocks on our planet, but older than our planet itself. I’m not allowed to touch it because the liquid in my hands would react with an element it contains and create hydrochloric acid, and this in turn would dissolve the rock itself. And that element does not exist on our planet. So we’re in Tintin land, expecting apples to become giant spiders and great popping mushrooms at any moment.

Except, of course, that we are all made of this same, basic and eternal matter, endlessly (if sometimes very slowly) combining and recombining. My hot flesh, your frozen glazed weight: both are ultimately stardust. And as the astronomer talks, and we pass the meteor along, imagining its impact on the Argentinian grasslands 5,000 years ago; considering that a piece of comet this size travelling at this velocity would wipe out the average small town instantaneously, it is the otherness of this tiny piece of place that dawns on me.

Islands, icebergs, moons, meteors: tiny universes of their own. To visit, to explore, to sit by one’s campfire as the icy island disintegrates into meltwater; as the place of grass and granite is consumed by tectonic force; as the crater-strewn globe gradually edges away from the planet whose gravity keeps it only temporarily captive; as sheer airless hurtle becomes furnace-hot fall, shattering impact, anhillation. And just as I was getting to know you.

I’d heard, as many know, that the possibility of finding complex life elsewhere in the universe depends on finding a sun with a planet in the ‘temperate zone’ in which atmospheres made of suitable gasses can be held near the surface at appropriate temperatures. These are not common, they say, but already quite a few have been identified. But, just in passing, the astronomer mentions other factors. Life doesn’t only need certain chemical and atmospheric conditions: if it’s to get the time to be more-interesting-than-amoeba it needs stability. We owe much of our relative unchangingness to the presence of our moon, which happens to be big enough to help stabilise our passage around the sun and make our weather and geology less prone to frequent events on a catastrophic scale; likewise, it is the collossal mass of Saturn and Jupiter we have to thank for attracting away from us countless comets that might otherwise come our way, with equally dramatic consequences.

The universe is a big place, and its by no means proven that complex, conscious, communicative life cannot develop in ways other than that which created us. But nevertheless, this tiny, heavy piece of otherplace makes our own great place, this ball of soil and water, seem almost unbelievably lucky, contingent, coincidental.

  1. February 7, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Lovely! How precious is our planet, how fragile. I highly recommend the Prince of Wales’s book, ‘Harmony’.

    • February 7, 2011 at 10:12 am

      Thanks so much, Linda — God bless you, you make me feel like someone’s listening!

      And I don’t even reply quickly to your emails. I tried your latest tip and became instantly confused — it’s awaiting a sane few minutes concentrating on Interacting With Software. Hopefully when they come it will in fact be easy.

  2. February 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Where’d ya see this hear meteor anyhow?

    • February 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

      Hit me on the head. Luckily, I was wearing a hat at the time.

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