30 April, 2014

ISON: The Song of Fire and Ice

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with GRR Martin’s novels or HBO’s TV series. But no other name suits this event than The Song of Ice and Fire. I’d have thanked GRR Martin for the name, but there’s no “Thank You” in Dothraki.


Few weeks ago I told you a story, about Betelguese. Today, I want to tell you a story about a different celestial object. My favorite in 2013 which I tracked for months. You might have read its name in the newspapers sometime – ISON.


In the far boundaries of the Solar System within the Oort cloud, a little pack of dust and gas was once called upon by the mighty Sun. As the dust started to make its way towards the Sun, it started collecting more dust, gas, and ice. As it approached the Sun, the ice began to glow, leaving a brilliant tail behind. It travelled for hundreds of years, collecting gas, becoming stronger, speeding up, approaching the Sun when finally in September 2012 I first heard of its name – comet ISON. I looked forward to it but knew it’d be until atleast October 2013 when I’d really get interested.


As time went on and October 2013 came, I started to track ISON everyday. It was beautiful. It was not a comet in the usual sense. One, it was never going to come back. It was a hyperbolic comet, which means once it went around the Sun it’d never come back ever. It’d keep moving out into space until some other star called it. Two, it’d go strikingly close by the Sun. To the extent of grazing it. This was a dangerous thing for ISON, but astronomers like me were hopeful. Three, it’d be visible in daylight. Once it came, every human alive on the northern hemisphere of the planet would be able to see 2 Suns in the day. 2 moons at night. The Sun wouldn’t be able to block it out. It’d be as bright as the moon. In December, it’d outshine the moon. It’d be historic, brilliant, something which comes once in centuries. And we’d be alive to see it.


But first, ISON had to go by the Sun. Its real challenge. Given the intensity of the Sun and the immense gravitational pull, there was a slight chance that the SUN would break ISON apart. Tear it down to its nucleus and then break the nucleus into the dust which it once was. And then when ISON would be entirely defeated, the Sun would engulf the remnants. People on Earth were to be mere spectators in this battle between father and son. And it was to be an epic battle indeed. NASA called it comet of the century. People from all over the world met on the night of November 28th, 2013 on a Google Hangout with eminent scientists from across the world to talk about this battle of ice and fire. I was awake that night.


Be what may, I learnt one thing from the anticipation. If you have to write history, you need to burn yourself. You need to risk going farther than anyone else has ever gone. Only then will you be bright enough to outshine the status quo. To give something revolutionary, you need to risk burning out yourself. That’s what ISON was doing. ISON was no longer just a sungrazing comet. It was a symbol of hope, courage and revolution. And geeks like me watched in anticipation.


Finally, on 2:30 AM on November 29th, 2013 (CST), the moment of truth arrived. I was following the comet through the kinematic update on Emory University’s Physics Department’s website, NASA’s Google Hangout and the Solar System-scope website. The comet went so close to the Sun that no man-made instrument was able to observe it and then it was a matter of time when we’d see comet ISON again. It might have died out in the Sun, or it might have come out victorious, to be seen by humans in mid-December. We waited in anticipation, until something began to be visible again. Something came out. Very weak. Very pale. The nucleus of the comet had broken. Now it was just a matter of time when it’d disintegrate into nothingness again leaving behind nothing but a story. It went too far. It took a risk and it didn’t pay off. Nature, perhaps isn’t always fair to the struggling. Or this is what nature had always intended.


This was one of the many celestial phenomena which keep happening in the Universe all the time. This one was special just because it happened so close to the Earth that people could observe it. And this was revolutionary. To me, this was a lesson. To be brave and go for the goal. Only after scorching yourself you can expect to glow brightly. And that whatever I do, nature will prevail. Destiny has a story decided for me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to play my part. I have to do what I need to, and nature will do what it needs to. And together, we write history. Because only then will life would have been worth living. And that is the message I want to leave you with. It’s not always going to be easy. But only when you take a great risk will you come up with a great story.


Vishal Gupta

December 2013