photo credit:
Steven A. Heller



NASA Images Guest Showcase

Things That Float

by Stephen Nowlin



As a kid, I really wanted to possess the power of magic. Ads in the backs of comic books beckoned — beseeched me to send in the cutout coupon for a 10-day free trial, tantalized me with secrets of the Miracle Coin or the Chinese Laundry Ticket. I mostly coveted the Gravity Defyer, from which I imagined I would learn the mysteries of levitation — the ability to magically float something in the seeming nothingness of air.

Conjurers throughout history have claimed to have powers that can break the rules, making things that are supposed to be here disappear, things that are supposed to be still move, or things supposed to be down here float up there. Magic — what a gift to possess, to be able to reach through a personal gap in a reality where everyone else is corralled, and perform astonishing feats attracting awe and admiration.

I sent away for a few of those comic book gadgets, but in due course discovered the craft of illusion was behind it all. Magic was only the sales-pitch — no mystical powers were conveyed for my one-buck and three-week wait at the mailbox, just a set of written instructions that anyone could follow. I could become a natural trickster, but not a supernatural miracle-maker. Meanwhile, my nightly prayers to fly like Superman, despite their increasingly earnest desperation, were never answered either.

It's notable that when we were kids, and long-long ago when human reality was made simpler by knowing less, we invented fictions to mysticize, complicate, and imbue the world with wonder. Using magic to make something float would violate the laws of ordinary experience — and somehow that seems breathtaking, while the rather helpful fact that we don't float away and instead remain fixed to the ground where we live, does not. How many of our fables, stories, and legends glorify their characters with the allure of being able to scoff at the authority of gravity and soar free? We're charmed by heavy things that float in thin air, because we're products of a gravity environment where weight is pinned to the planet's surface. When something seems to do otherwise, it arouses the pleasure of our curiosity — it's a spectacle, and inspiring, and not at all ordinary.

In the present, however, the notion that our ordinary world is punctured and enlivened by magic no longer really applies, no longer convincingly amplifies the long narrative of human awe and understanding. There is no ordinary world anymore, and no gravity binds us to the surface of our ancient beliefs. We float untethered to the desire for a magic beyond the ordinary, because science has discovered the unfolding of ordinary to be stranger and more wonderful than any conjured fiction of myth or lore.

As a native Earthling, bred and raised with an awe-threshold heavily influenced by our terra-firma existence, I remain captivated by how big things stuck to the surface down here can hover like floating poetry up there in the blackness of space. Not just big things, but things so inconceivably massive there is no measure that adequately expresses their size in human terms. Entire universes are held in floating tension, no up or down or bottom or top, gigantic magnificent and mysterious worlds sitting on nothing, treacherous and beguiling worlds, all enchanted by their delicate buoyancy. It may not be magic, but it sure is magical.


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Go to Things That Float video at NASAimages.org — CLICK THE IMAGES BELOW:




soundtrack: Claude Debussy, Clair de Lune; Caela Harrison, piano:     Please adjust your volume.