Winter & Spring at MIT

You wake on the first of the year in a lighthouse on the Hudson River, after a good nine hours of sleep. Frost blurs the windows. Wind skips along the water. Your wife is sleeping, your friends and their just-turned-one-year-old, your godson, are sleeping. You stand, shivering slightly, and stare at the ice coating the glass. You try to think of something profound to think about, but instead you’re thinking: my feet are freezing; where are my pants; will there be bacon. 

There is bacon, and coffee, and a coal-fired stove, and all the other things you expect from a lighthouse in the middle of the Hudson River, where last night you watched Jupiter reflected on the rippling waters. More and more these days, you seem to be glancing back and forth between this world and others.

Back in Cambridge, snow falls. Your mother has given you a rock hammer for a Christmas gift. It was made by her late father, Fayette Rumsey Plumb II, the last in a long line of hammer and hatchet makers. Your grandparents’ cats, when you were growing up, were named Hammer and Hatchet. Whenever you see the crimson handle gleaming in a hardware store, you feel a sense of pride, even though Plumb hammers are now made across the Pacific.

You are reminded at Harvard that all of these things, cats and rock hammers and grandparents, are made out of atoms, which in turn are made out of even smaller particles. Dimitar Sasselov says, in a room half-filled with freshman athletes looking at Facebook,“If you gain weight, you’re gaining quarks.” For lunch, many winter days, you order tofu bahn mi from a truck. Someone has shaped quarks into hot sauce, thank god. It’s shaping up to be a long winter.

You fly to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to see some old friends. You attend their daughter’s first luau, record the clattering, moaning sounds of whales underwater, drink non-decaf coffee against your better judgment. Sun warms the red soils of Waimea. A drone buzzes by on its way out to a flock of surfers. Here’s the largest wave you have ever seen; there’s the sun crawling down again into the Pacific; that must be Comet Lovejoy above the trembling palms. 

You premiere a new film in New York City, and the theater forgets to put the film on the marquee. Well, it’s been a busy week. We’re so sorry. Happy new year. You get good reviews, friendly audiences, and the amusing sight of chicken nuggets on a large screen. Your brother, briefly home from Thailand, joins for the premiere, and on the drive back north you listen to all the old songs, passing all the New England towns. 

During the lull between semesters at MIT, you spend January editing a new film. It’s coalescing, each scene a rocky planetesimal jostling into position with others, falling steadily into orbit. Eventually, after a few more asteroid collisions and tectonic shifts, you will have planet Bluespace. But not just yet. 

There’s snow to shovel, so you shovel snow, which falls and falls, breaking records, wounding souls. You scrape the hell out of the Subaru with your snow shovel. Amanda photographs lost mittens, feeds the wild rabbits of MIT’s pedestrian paths, reminds you she’s from Birmingham. 

A geophysicist from UC-Berkeley explains his theory that the famous Chicxulub asteroid triggered an increase in the eruption of the Deccan Traps in India. Double dogging the dinosaurs. Perhaps the two sparring camps - asteroid impact vs massive vulcanism - can be friends, or rather blood-relatives, but more study is needed before all are satisfied with the verdict. Jury’s been out for 65 million years. Dimitar Sasselov, strapping on a motorcycle helmet to demonstrate Newtonian motion, gives it a sniff and says, “someone must have perished in this. Lots of bone fragments.”

You spend a weekend in Maine with two friends who have bought a house in the woods. Much of the night is spent shoveling snow off the roof, and falling off the roof into the snowbanks piled four feet high. On the other side of the country, Phil Levine passes away. You read his poems aloud, try to call your brother. You cross country ski across a lake, and watch the dry snow whirling above the frozen ice, ice which hovers so solidly above the depths of the lake, broken only now and again by the augurs of ice fishermen who camp out in tiny huts, each hut a spaceship of warmth plunked down on this frozen world. Later that afternoon you collect rock maple and oak to stoke a fire in a neighbor’s sauna, plunging you and your friends briefly onto the surface of Venus. 

Back in Cambridge, a professor from Cornell describes his idea for ELF, the Enceladus Life Finder, an instrument he wants to use to sample the volatiles spewing out of one of Saturn’s smaller moons. 

You wish him the best of luck, and fly with Amanda to Las Vegas. You rent a car and drive two fast hours to Death Valley, where you rent a motel room a few hundred feet below sea level. The stars blaze in the warm night. A local retiree demonstrates the flutes he has made from PVC piping. Europeans stand around looking for wifi. In the morning, you make peanut butter sandwiches before dawn, and drive to the top of the area’s highest peak, where the temperature drops to freezing, and the wind pulls at your tripod, making it whistle like a flute. You haven’t dressed well. You have put far too much peanut butter on Amanda’s sandwich, and it has exploded in the rental car like a full diaper. 

You take pictures of rocks, salt, and tiny plastic astronauts. You remember filming here at night with your father for The City Dark, under the brightest stars with the hottest midnight wind. The deepest place in America is a valley for collecting memories. 

Back in Cambridge, the snow tapers off. An Italian named Jacopo speaks to you and the Knight fellows about a floating nuclear power plant. It stirs a commotion in the seminar room. You drink green tea and remember a book from your high school days called The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps. 

The days are getting longer, because your part of the Earth is tilting more towards the sun, and the days and nights together are getting longer, because the Earth’s rotation is slowing down, tugged on by the Moon. The Moon recedes. Water lubricates the tectonic plates of the globe, and North America moves away from Africa. Rifts in the ocean refresh the surface of the Earth, cooled by the circulating sea. Plumes of lava make islands. 

You fly to an island in the Atlantic with Amanda. Your taxi winds through calcium carbonate canyons, depositing you finally on a small hill overlooking a beach with pink sands. For six days, you squint at the blue sea, trying to see whales. Near the shore, large parrot fish snack on the coral reef, jostling in the waves like kaleidoscopic windsocks, close enough that you watch them from the beach, not two leagues from your sun-screened feet. You and Amanda play mini-golf by the sea, until the evening grows dark (and, well, stormy), and you catch a minivan taxi back home with an older couple from Ontario who raise hundreds of thousands of confinement layer hens. Their children are tending them while they’re gone. 

Tap water here is rainwater, collected from the gleaming whitewashed roofs. The houses are made of limestone, carved from the island itself, thousands of feet of calcium carbonate sitting atop the unseen volcanic rock. Where the sea chews at the island, the limestone is jagged, sharp, pockmarked, somewhat extraterrestrial. There are chitons, which the locals call suckrocks, and crabs, and a professorial couple from Pennsylvania who drink loudly in the early afternoon. You sit on the pink sands and read The Nitrogen Fix, a science fiction novel written by one of your high school astronomy mentors, the late Hal Clement. In it, Earth has been transformed into another world, all oxygen gone from the atmosphere. 

Back in Cambridge, you buy frozen fruit at the grocery store, and avoid moving your car for fear of losing your parking space. Finally, you move your car, and end up at a wind turbine testing facility along the Mystic River. The wood in the turbines is balsa. Engineers bend the turbine blades until they snap or shatter. These are the wind bones of the Mystic. Later, on a tour of the watershed, you ride a water taxi along the river with Olga, George and Wade, and Olga remarks on the remarkable number of American flags in America. You eat two enormous cookies given to you by a waterfront developer. 

You learn the methods for finding planets beyond our solar system. You learn of an old time wine glass chiller called a monteith. How many monteiths are there in the universe? A planetary scientist tells you there may be more planets than stars in the universe. Amanda spends hours in the pottery studio, and comes home covered in clay.

You attend a panel on climate change, and behind the speakers are projected real-time tweets and the results of surveys being sent out to the audience. It’s so distracting and obscene that you want to throw a rock hammer at someone. Instead you make a list of the films you intend to make after leaving MIT, and meet your mother for lunch at Legal Seafood, where she orders an Arnold Palmer. You talk of many things. Easter comes, and your parents have filled the yard with chocolates. Billie the cat, among the tulips, lets nothing go unnoticed. 

At night, you eat Cuban food with Amanda, your sister, and your future brother-in-law, before seeing the New England Revolution do battle in Foxboro. Your sister remarks that this is where the Neponset River begins. Everyone decides against chicken fingers. Musketeers fire their muskets. It’s not a long drive home. 

In Maine, you and the fellows visit a laboratory filled with millions of mutant mice. Your friend Bob, tasting the local cheddar soup, declares that he wants a hot tub filled with cheddar soup. Wade says to some post-docs, “you don’t necessarily want to get into a war with trolls.” You see brown mice, black mice, white mice, hairless mice. At night, the wind howls harshly. You play Scattergories for the first time in 15 years, and in the morning you go running down a long trail to the sea. Frogs peep. Maine calls. 

Back in Massachusetts, your father has curated a gallery show and invited you to show a few films. You see your 2nd-grade teacher, now retired, and you talk about oceans and China, as you did when you were eight. A high school classmate, briefly home from Kurdistan, tells you that no one wants to hear what it’s like being bombed. 

In Cambridge, you meet the charming director of a major observatory. He says the Orion Nebula is in Orion’s belt, and you think better of correcting him, because he’s smarter than you are, and perhaps one man’s sword is another’s belt. So you drive to Ithaca with Olga, Roberto & Giovana to eat tapas, admire waterfalls, and witness the launch of the Carl Sagan Institute. The man is quoted, time and again. Planet hunters swarm the stage, and you love science once again for its mysteries — the way it raises more questions than it answers. The talks range from 51 Peg to Kepler, and you realize you are at least conversant in a new language, one you’d always loved but had only admired from afar — the language of planets. Under the bright sun, above a dammed river, you squint at your planet with a kind of affection. 

On the last Wednesday evening of your fellowship, Wade and Patrick help you and Amanda cart your camera equipment down to the curb and into the Subaru. Driving home from campus, the trees seem unusually bright green, the sky crisp, the clouds white with wisps of pink. In your rearview mirror, the Charles is the deep Atlantic blue you love. You pass the coffee shops and bars and biotech labs. You pass the paths where the rabbits lived out the winter, and the pile of blackened snow that is still melting now just a few days after your 35th birthday. Layer upon layer of filth, the stratigraphy of winter compressed down to a single layer, a little taste of the Anthropocene at the corner of Binney and Fulkerson streets. 

When you get home, you check in on your march through time (see below!), and realize that on Thursday, May 14th, when you’re reading this aloud to your fellow fellows, you will be 65 million years before the present. An asteroid will crush a gaping hole in the Yucatan, triggering earthquakes and vulcanism, killing dinosaurs and stuffing the sky with soot. Mammals will inherit what’s left of the Earth, build coliseums, pull oil from whales, trap and breed mutant mice, accept Knight fellowships. 

You look backward, forward, upward, downward. You’re grateful for the time you’ve been given to think about space, and the space you’ve been given to think about time. Spring thaws the last snow and pulls the lilacs into blossom. Amanda spots a planet high in the evening sky, and neither of you mistake it for a plane.