There is a book written by a Harvard professor about the wonder you feel when you see a rainbow. The book is about a few other things as well, but even among academics, and even among academics at Harvard, the book is a tough trip, except that all its ideas add up to a very simple formula: things that cause you to feel awe are rare, so you always feel awe when you see those things even if you have seen them before.
Everyone at the space station in Kiruna, Sweden, tries to make me feel at home when I visit in the middle of winter. Word has got round that I am heartbroken, and that when I tried to explain that I was looking for the Aurora Borealis I quoted some obscure American professor’s book about feeling awe whenever you see a rainbow. Nobody knew what to make of that, until I said I had a personal experiment I was conducting: My heart was broken, and I wanted to see if astonishment could help me heal, or at least forget, and that I thought the Aurora could do this trick.
So when I arrive in six feet of snow at the Arctic Circle with my video camera, I am taken to see the Borealis expert Krister. As I walk the corridor with my host to Krister’s office, other space specialists pop out of their offices to say hello. Here is the guy who thinks all rainbows lead to love, they think, but they are all smiling.
Krister sweeps me into his gizmo-filled office. He’s got computers set up for me, slide shows and wave meters, but he’s got a question, too: “You’re the lovesick poet who thinks he can be cured by the Aurora?”
He leans forward and whispers: “It makes a sound, but don’t tell anyone. You can tell everyone, but don’t tell them I told you, because they’ll think I’m crazier than I already am.”
We laugh and sit down. He is studying me. He is a scientist. I tell stories. How useful are we to each other, he wonders?
“You haven’t seen it?”
“No. I’ve never tried to see it.”
“What do you think will happen when you do?”
“I will try to see if I can describe surprise so people who have not seen it will feel surprised before they do.”
You know how you meet somebody for the first time, and you wonder what they’re after? And then you just trust your guts and tell them everything without caring if it’s safe to do so or not? As if a small voice in your head says it’s time for speaking and not for strategy? That must have happened right then for Krister, because he called his wife and said forget dinner but maybe we would have a guest, some heartbroken fellow from New York, and when he hung up he whispered to me again, as if backstage:
“Before we start, it’s very, very important for you to realize that even after you have seen the Aurora, you have not seen it. Do you understand?”
Yes, I do.