Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Fifth Planet

Loren Eiseley (1907–1977)
From Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos

A meteor during the peak of the 2009 Leonid Meteor Shower. November 17, 2009. Image by Ed Sweeney / Navicore, via Wikipedia.
In his essay “The Mind as Nature” (1962), Loren Eiseley defended the awestruck wonder and the confessional tone that pervade his popular science writings:
It has been my own experience among students, laymen, and scholars that to express even wonder about the universe—in other words, to benefit from some humble consideration of what we do not know, as well as marching to the constant drumbeat of what we call the age of technology—is regarded askance in some quarters. I have had the vague word “mystic,” applied to me because I have not been able to shut out wonder occasionally, when I have looked at the world. I have been lectured by at least one member of my profession who advised me to “explain myself ”—words which sound for all the world like a humorless request for the self-accusations so popular in Communist lands. . . . This man was unaware, in his tough laboratory attitude, that there was another world of pure reverie that is of at least equal importance to the human soul.
An anthropologist and self-described “bone-hunter,” Eiseley published a series of books over a span of two decades, the first of which, The Immense Journey, appeared the week before he turned fifty and became an international phenomenon, selling over a million copies in more than a dozen languages. This debut collection of essays showcased the literary qualities that led many readers to hail Eiseley as a “modern Thoreau”; Kirkus Reviews called it “an unconventional record—a model of a personal universe,” in which the author wandered among a variety of disparate topics: “fossils, prairie dogs, primates, the magic of water, the ocean depths, the progress of ‘the snout,’ flowers and plants, birds, the brain and robots.” One of the book’s more memorable essays, “Little Men and Flying Saucers,” contemplated the essential isolation of human existence in a vast universe:
Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness.
During the last years of his life, Eiseley expanded the scope of his oeuvre, publishing three books of poetry, working on an unfinished science-fiction novel titled “The Snow Wolf,” and compiling an archaeology textbook, also never finished. Less than a month before his death, he dictated from his hospital bed a letter to his publisher with the “rough outline” of a new book. To be titled “The Loren Eiseley Sampler,” it would gather both poetry and prose, some of it previously unpublished or uncollected and some of it representing the best of his earlier books. After Eiseley’s death, while arranging his papers for the archives, his assistant Caroline E. Werkley discovered two previously unpublished short stories—“The Dance of the Frogs” and “The Fifth Planet”—and it was decided to add them to the collection, which appeared as The Star Thrower in June 1978.

“The Fifth Planet,” which we present as our Story of the Week selection, was probably written in the late 1940s. Narrated by a “bone hunter” resembling Eiseley himself, the story features an amateur astronomer hoping, against the odds, to find fossils in meteorites from the asteroid belt, which was once believed to have been the remnants of a “lost” planet between Mars and Jupiter. (The universally accepted explanation among astronomers today is that Jupiter’s immense mass prevented a planet from forming at all.) In this short work of fiction, as in his essays, Eiseley shares his “mystical” wonder, in the best sense of that vague word, of humanity’s place in the universe and of the dreams that haunt our sleep while “the meteors whisper greenly overhead.”

Notes: On page 344, Eiseley mentions Bode’s law, also known as the Titius-Bode law, which predicts approximately the spacing of planets in the solar system. It was the application of this hypothesis that led nineteenth-century astronomers to posit the existence of a “lost planet” between Mars and Jupiter. On page 347 is a quote from Matthew 7:7 (“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. . . .”).

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“It isn’t there any more,” he said. He was the only man I ever knew who hunted for bones in the stars, and I remember we were standing out among his sheep in the clear starshine when he said it. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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