Sunday Essay: Contractions, expansions, and escapes

Isolde D. Amante

HAVE you come to terms with the fact that half of this year will soon be over? We are alive and everyone we love is healthy, and those are blessings this year has taught us not to take for granted. We have jobs and sources of income, which millions worldwide have lost since this pandemic began. The list of things we are grateful for is long.

Still, every now and then, I feel odd. I make plans for the week and month ahead, but not too far beyond that. The future that used to stretch ahead and inspire ambition seems too foggy on some days. The space in which I feel safe moving around keeps contracting.

Do you sometimes feel hemmed in? How have you endured it?

My mother, who is in her early 70s, has fought containment with a flurry of activity. She has repotted every plant she owns, repainted two garages and an old rattan bookcase, organized a daily prayer time with her two teenage grandsons and two-year-old great-niece, and learned to enjoy remote meetings on Messenger. You should hear her go on about the state of leadership in this country.

I do what I can to stay productive. I work, read, journal, sign up frequently for webinars. Sometimes, though, I just feel the urge to escape. Here is one form of escape I’ve indulged in, and it began with a tweet from the science journalist Corey S. Powell.

“Newborn stars are surrounded by a wondrous variety of dusty disks,” he wrote this week, “each one giving rise to a unique system of planets. Just imagine all the worlds taking shape here.”

This month, while nations kept to themselves like unapologetic introverts, some individuals (thankfully, for the rest of us) kept their eyes on the stars. Specifically, young stars surrounded by rings of dust and gas.

This month, Robert Sanders of the University of Berkeley wrote, the most detailed images of 26 of these “debris disks around young stars” were released.

Why is this so awesome? Because these images reveal nothing less than planetary nurseries. Years from now, a few of the invisible grains of dust in these distant fields of debris will have coalesced to form pebbles, then boulders, then possibly icy mountain ranges, and then entire planets.

None of us will be around to see them, because the process takes billions of years. That’s not the point. These are images of planets being born while the one we’re in often feels out of control. If that’s not awe-inspiring, then I don’t know what is.

It took more than four years for these images to be captured by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI). That sits atop the Gemini South, an eight-meterlong telescope nearly 2,800 meters above sea level in Chile. How long has the Gemini South been at work? It’s been stargazing for at least 20 years. To find the 26 young stars surrounded by what could be emerging planets, the GPI had to sweep through a field of 104 stars.

I know, I know, this has nothing pragmatic to offer us.

This information won’t change the price of fish or make an affordable Covid-19 vaccine arrive faster or convince more citizens to wear masks at all times when they’re in public spaces. It won’t even help us understand the mystery of Cebu City’s 17,000 chickens.

What it does is offer us the reminder that even if this pandemic has caused us to feel stuck, human achievement continues.

Call it an escape, which is what it feels like. But it helps.

When some of our public leaders are (understandably) short-fused or (unnecessarily) cruel, I like to think of the real brains of the planet, the ones who advance knowledge carefully, away from the spotlight. They help keep my sense of proportion alive. When all our earthbound realities get a little too much, it helps to gaze briefly, with awe and gratitude, at the stars.