Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Promise: Bright Light of Shipwreck

George Oppen, a great poet, often refers to "the bright light of shipwreck." I will not pretend to explicate what he meant, but I can say that those words figure in my imagining of what the new year might bring.

I'm not forecasting disaster, although catastrophes will happen. They always do. Instead "the bright light of shipwreck" serves to remind me that I have no idea what is ahead. I look forward to a year of discoveries--and at least some of them will change the face of the world.

Robert Ballard lead the team of underwater explorers who discovered the remains of the Titanic. Because of his expedition, we have seen the shoes scattered across the sea floor that are all that remains of the passengers. It is impossible to see something like that without registering the loss, but it is also impossible to see something like that without registering wonder. And there are even greater wonders to be found.

Ballard himself does not figure the revelation of the Titanic to be his greatest achievement. Instead, he considers tubeworms like these a greater discovery: They live without depending on the sun for energy. Tubeworms change the face of the world because they change what we know about life. "This is far more important than finding the Titanic. The Titanic we knew about. We did not know about this system. And it's completely rewritten biology books, chemistry books. For many people this is where life began on Earth," Ballard said.

So that is the sort of discovery I look forward to witnessing in 2010--wonders I can't begin to imagine, wonders that change the world.
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