University Lowbrow Astronomers

Searching for Supernova Remnants on Superior’s Shore or How We Celebrated our 25th Anniversary.

by Kurt Hillig
Printed in Reflections: February, 2007.

There are ideas the human mind cannot wrap itself around, however hard it tries; there are things too big and things too small, things too old and things too new, things too simple and things too mysterious. But we are human, and still we try....

Ten billion years ago: The sky (before there was a sky!) was filled with lights unimaginable, celestial fireworks on a scale beyond comprehension; cinders strewn on vast yet ephemeral winds, whence came all that we now see and feel and taste and touch.

Five billion years ago: Smoke and ash, dust and vapor; whirling, swirling, roiling, boiling, cooling, condensing, colliding, congealing, fusing.

One billion years ago: A world covered with smoke and shadow, molten rock flowing through torn crust spreads like molten fudge poured onto a marble table before the confectioner starts to work it. Rain falls on hot rock: dissolution, percolation, precipitation, crystallization.

One hundred million years ago: The slowest of collisions raises mountain chains, bends rock, warps continents, reshapes the Earth. Water continues to refine, to reform.

Ten thousand years ago: Retreating ice has dropped the fragments that advancing ice had carried. Advancing men find fragments of a strange material: heavy and cold, malleable and lustrous, easy to shape and hard to break, colored sometimes like the moss or the grass or the trees, sometimes like the sunset, sometimes like blood.

One hundred years ago: Men have delved deep by the light of candles using the power of sweat and sinew, fire and water and steam. Men have built great engines and opened vast caverns. Men have strained and suffered, and many have died, but the prize some have won is star-stuff.

One hundred days ago: Two specks, on a speck, orbiting a speck, lost amid a hundred billion other specks, set out on a journey to find shards and fragments of the primordial cataclysm.

Imagine a sheet of paper ten feet wide and forty feet long; color it red so you can find it again, then lay it flat on top of a stack of paper a foot high. Pile another two or three inches of paper on top of this, then push in the edges of the pile (a half-dozen Caterpillar D7 bulldozers would do nicely) so it curls up at the sides, forming a long trough. Fill with water, then stretch to a hundred miles wide, bend it into a shallow U and call it Lake Superior. The near edge runs from Ironwood through the Keewenaw to Copper Harbor before dropping under water and turning to the south; the far edge is mostly submerged save for Isle Royale. And that one thin sheet is now twenty feet thick and dives down into the ground at a fifty degree angle....

For years beyond record people have gathered copper from the rocks by the shores of gichi-gami; and we have joined the throng. The search is slower now, the prizes smaller, the rewards now found in the beauty of miniature prisms and needles, of metallic feathers and threads, rich colors and sparkling crystals; epidote and microcline, calcite and quartz, prehnite and datolite and chrysocolla. And, occasionally, nuggets: hard and heavy and malleable, colored like the moss or the grass or the trees, or sometimes glowing like the sunset. And we wonder how and why....


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