The parable of the dirty floor

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IridiumSince recalling the events of yesterday in their right order often requires significant intellectual effort, while those of last month recede serially into a cloudy jumble, it would be an act of unimaginable hubris to claim seriously to remember last February. What were you doing on 10 February, for example?

Well, for myself, I was preoccupied with an odd mark on one of the terracotta tiles of the kitchen floor — odd because scrubbing would not remove it and because it seemed to be coming up out of the stone rather than being a stain on the surface. Strange.

I know it was 10 February because, driven by some peculiar catastrophic dread, I noted my discovery in the diary. It's still there among other crucial observations and instructions like 'Buy more washing up stuff', 'Super funds manager — 11.15 am', 'Pay electricity bill TODAY', 'NB NB Super funds manager — today!' and so on.

Looking back on that page now, I see it was the 41st day and seventh week of the year and in Thailand the feast of Makha Bucha, which commemorates Buddha's teachings on the full moon day of every third lunar month.

Four months later, the stain has spread through three more tiles and taken on a streaky pallor. No getting round it: these are moribund tiles, a diagnosis cheerfully confirmed when I call in Sam — 'Carpentry and Building Pty Ltd. Winner of the HIA 2008 Custom built home of the year $200–$350k'.

Sam assures me the malaise, caused by damp from the kitchen sink, will spread unless expensive surgery and transplants are undertaken, though he phrases it differently: 'They're buggered. Rip 'em out.'

Gloomily, I tell Sam that since all lunar months are roughly the same duration as the synodic month of 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and three seconds, I am losing three tiles every feast of Makha Bucha. He just looks at me and says, 'I'll send you a quote'.

I took no offence at his cavalier attitude because I made those figures up anyway.

It's not difficult in these days of financial, climatic, strategic and technological complexity to feel haunted by some sense of a larger force operating, causing havoc. In moments of profound misanthropy — an affliction that frequently overtakes me on days when I have to confront the manager of our frozen super funds — the disintegration of one's kitchen floor is easily enlisted as a microscopic sign of larger evils.

What was happening in the cosmos, I asked myself portentously on that 10 February day, that could explain obscure feelings of unease and danger? Well, as it turns out, a hell of a lot was going on up above.

At 16.55 universal time on Tuesday 10 February, the 900 kg defunct Russian satellite Kosmos 2251, launched in 1993, crashed into the 500 kg American commercial satellite Iridium 33, launched in 1997. The point of impact was 800 km above northern Siberia, and the two vehicles met at a speed of approximately 10 km per second.

Both satellites were totally destroyed and their wreckage clouded out into space like ballooning dust to add itself to the 3332 orbiting 'live' satellites and the 9698 countable items of debris already in orbit.

Even allowing for the accumulation of junk since Sputnik was the first to burst into that silent, ethereal sea of space, it beggars belief that any two voyagers ranging through those limitless wastes could even come close to each other, let alone collide.

When you look at and into the sky, even with the naked eye, you're looking at the vastest, illimitable prospect available to the human gaze, and there is, as we know, a huge amount more of it than we can see. The knowledge that in this infinite cavern of night and day two wandering travellers could smash into one another has to reorganise one's priorities. It makes my festering floor, for example, ludicrously unimportant.

And yet, if I don't do something about it, insignificant though it appears in the great scheme of things, the problem will deepen. Entropy will set in.

While the moon sucks the tides across the oceans and the sun waxes and wanes and storms rage in our skies and in deep space, we still have to get on with our lives, however dwarfed we recognise them to be when two satellites against all the odds collide; or when the full moon day of every third lunar month rolls around and Buddhists pray and revere their mysterious avatar; or when, for that matter, Easter — its timing governed by the moon and the vernal equinox — returns annually to remind us of the enigmatic Christ. Life rages on regardless.

'Hello. Is that you, Sam?'

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life.


Topic tags: brian matthews, stain, collision, satellite, Kosmos 2251, Iridium 33, cosmos



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Have you thought of covering it with carpet? That's what I do!

Pat Sheahan | 17 June 2009  

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