You move to Cambridge in August, with Amanda. The apartment is sunny, small and not clean; there’s enough long, black hair behind the couch, you could make a wig. But instead you vacuum. You’re here to delve into the science of planets and space, so it seems natural to start out with a vacuum.
In your first month at MIT, you do see equations. They’re on the chalkboard of your planetary formations class, chalked in with chalk. Your professor was born in Germany, moved to England as a teenager. As she writes equations, to you it’s more like cave drawings, or runes, these Greek letters and swirling mysteries of calculus, her hands growing whiter and whiter with chalk, and you remember reading somewhere that chalk runs in broad swaths across England, under the Channel, clear through to France. Maybe they dug the Chunnel through the chalk? Maybe it makes for good Champagne? Back in class, the equations are describing the behavior of dust in our solar system’s protostellar disk. Dust colliding with dust, gas mingling with gas, planetesimals smashing with planetesimals 4,500 million years ago. Chalk dust falls now from the chalkboard, catches the light of September sun. The equations stretch across the entire wall. Your professor is saying, “There’s a lot we’re still figuring out about this model. But we know the universe can make planets, because there are planets.”
You go to learn about your own planet on the 8th floor of a tall concrete tower, resting on land reclaimed from the Charles River. Here the chalkboard is called slate, which is metamorphic, and the chalk is called limestone, which is sedimentary. In the same classroom, in your geochemistry class, where the teachers sometimes outnumber the students, limestone is called CaCO3, calcium carbonate, calcite and aragonite. It’s formed on this planet mostly by sea creatures. You identify it by dropping acid. You get an oil change in East Cambridge. You pay the rent. You get a storage unit for your collection of hard drives, and sign a form stating that you are not storing bodies, dead or alive, in unit 33a.
You join an impromptu field trip with new friends out to the blue waters at the tip of the Cape. You take dramamine, but it doesn’t help because you’re peering through a camera’s tiny viewfinder, filming whales in slow motion. The ship heaves above the sea’s swells.
Back in Cambridge, you look at fossils, minerals, igneous rocks. You recognize halite, gneiss, marble, but schist eludes you — simple, straightforward schist. You decide, suddenly, but with conviction, that you will never know what schist is, it will be one of those things you are comfortable not knowing, like the salaries of your classmates from college. You give a presentation about zircon and δ13C. Living things prefer the lighter carbon, and hold it tightly til death, so carbon isotopes in ancient rocks are layered obituary pages. Clues to lives lived. With your fellow fellows you see the Red Sox trounce the Rays, and you leave all the litter in the bleachers, to be swept somewhere by someone, sometime before the next game. You run along the Charles, over the bridge. Tall humans row thin boats. Ducks watch, thinking, planning. You think, surely those ducks have a plan to one day retake their river. It’s just a matter of time.
You drive west along Route 2 following a geologist who measures the timing of extinctions. He’s named Sam, and years ago he found the oldest rocks on the planet Earth. Your mother comes along and explains the rocks in her own terms. Sam, who confesses to feeling very comfortable with the vast expanses of deep geologic time, confides in you that he’s uncomfortable with the stalled climate of the climate debate. He tells you we’re in for a serious time. Your mother brings along a pumpkin chocolate chip cake, which she shares with Sam and his bewildered students; she wears a shirt with colorful dancing dinosaurs. It occurs to you that a geochronologist is a rock clocker.
October opens with cold, and rain. At night, you read McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, and fall asleep picturing the blocks of the basin and range as they stretch, tip, erode. Your mind compresses time as best it can, imagines plumes and plates flowing like river ice, but in the daylight Cambridge does not appear to move. In one class you’re told, “now you have what you need to build a planet.” And the conversation shifts to the making of moons. More equations appear. You imagine that the solar system - that great, chaotic swirl which spun and collided and heaved and cracked and eventually gave birth to all the life we know - would be vaguely insulted to be reduced to chalk dust. Or maybe it’d be honored to grace the blackboards of MIT.
On the weekends, you peck away at a film you’ve been pecking away at for a while. It’s still not a film. If it were a meal you were trying to make, the dessert would be salty and heavy, the main course would be shattered on the kitchen floor, and the appetizers would be unmade, from ingredients you’ve never heard of and can’t find anywhere you’ve ever been. You still can’t imagine who would want to eat it, but at least you’ve registered a domain name.
You go to Woods Hole and drink whiskey in the rain. There’s a caffeine-swilling geochemist who studies oil spills. There are captive squid, stressed sharks, horseshoe crabs waiting for post-docs to drain their blue blood. In a basement, a man says, “If the community wants mutant frogs, we make them mutant frogs.” That night you disassemble lobsters in a mansion atop a glacial moraine.
Up at Harvard, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, your class on geobiology is exploring the end-Permian Extinction. You write, what was the first sound made by a living thing? What does an extinction sound like? In this class, you don’t say a word the entire semester, for reasons you can’t explain.
So far, your favorite thing to do at MIT is eat free cookies at the Wednesday afternoon Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Science department lectures. From the 9th floor you can see clear across Cambridge to Somerville and beyond, maybe all the way to the Winchester fells, where your friend Meme, now gone to cancer, worked for the Parks dept and hauled teenagers’ kegs out of the woods. You can now imagine this landscape 15,000 years ago, all of New England - the landscape of your childhood - under a giant hand of ice, pressing and scraping and surging, pulling gravel and sand and boulders this way and that, carving gullies, rivers, moraines, leaving behind the hills where you learned to hike, the pond in Maine where your father took you nightswimming as a boy, under stars as bright as any you’ve ever seen, where with your ears underwater, flat on your back, the sound of your own breathing and the hemisphere of stars gave you the sensation of floating through space. The cookies at the planetary science lectures are the size of Jupiter, but you are unable to restrain yourself from eating several as a gentleman from California shows an animation of stellar formation, explains where water freezes and thaws in the early solar system. There is water aplenty frozen in the comets of the Oort cloud, the Kuiper belt, and now you see his pictures of active asteroids, degassing reserves of water, knocked loose, he suspects, after an unexpected collision with another rock. Of the million or so asteroids circling the sun between Mars and Jupiter, he has found sixteen that he considers to be active. “Will we visit them?” someone asks. He replies, “NASA is conservative and only wants to do boring things where the result is already known and success is assured.”
In geochemistry class, an expedition to sample the bottom of Walden Pond is scrapped, because, as the TA explains, “Our boat is in Africa.”
For a weekend away you follow friends to a small island in Buzzard’s Bay. At night, bioluminescent phytoplankton skirt the rocks beneath a foot bridge, bursting into bright, brief, watery comets. You wonder where earth’s water first formed. Someone says it formed in space long before the solar system formed. Ancient space water? Delicious.
To eat turkey, you fly to North Carolina with your wife and parents. The drive from Charlotte takes you through endless switchbacks, and your father takes pictures of everything. You consider making a film about your father’s photographs, from Kodachrome to Digital SLR, and about the piles and piles of ones and zeroes that all our memories are turning into. In Asheville, you pay over $300 for organic groceries, including a $90 turkey, because long ago you made the mistake of learning about where food comes from. Amanda puts forward a recipe involving a cheesecloth blanket, soaked in wine and butter, that gets draped over the turkey during its fateful time in the oven. At the rental house, which is an impressive mountain chalet, the oven door is broken, and so your father and brother-in-law build a mop-based contraption to keep it shut. While the turkey cooks with its blanket, your parents trespass onto various woodland properties, and you stand embarrassed in the road. Together you eat sandwiches in a ditch.
Back home, you get mired in legal documentation for a film you thought you were done with. A European robot bounces around on a comet. In your notebook, in class somewhere, you write “I don’t understand the narrowing of absorption lines as a function of pressure — ask George.” And then, “there are almost as many bacteria in a gallon of seawater as there are people on earth.” And then someone is saying, “all of us who groom, can begin to groom inappropriately.”
Snow falls. When snow is cold enough, it’s almost chalky to the touch. On your last day of class with the professor of planets, you’re asked to stand up and talk about your films., to explain why you’re here at MIT. You stand there in front of the hastily-erased chalkboard, and behind you, the ghosts of the planet’s equations are pale white against the dark slate.