Arianna's Comet

Well, it was almost her comet. Turned out to be a galaxy instead. But "there's still more space to search."

"NEAs have been kicked out of their normal orbit," explains Gleason, "and if they are large enough, they could impact the earth and annihilate all life -- like the asteroids that ended the dinosaur age." As for TNOs, they're believed to hail "from the Kuiper Belt on the perimeter of our solar system." It was named for Gerard Peter Kuiper, an astronomer who suggested that a flattened belt of comets circles the sun beyond Neptune's orbit. "They think Pluto is actually a very large Kuiper object," she adds. "It's small and rocky, more like the inner planets, and it's not on the same plane. These TNOs orbit the sun too, but their orbits can be so elliptical that sometimes they can hit planets. The moon has been bombarded; that's why it's so cratered." She's especially interested in TNOs because, "since they're so far away, their composition is the least modified, and it holds clues to the time our galaxy was formed."

Pink-cheeked, with strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes and the inevitable home-from-college blazer, Gleason's excited about her new coffee habit and college life in general. "I love it when everyone is so excited, and there is such a connection between people," she confides. "They want to understand, and it's ... almost beyond words." She even feels that way about the marching band: "In Tucson we get these monsoons, and we'll be out there marching in pouring rain -- I know it sounds crazy, but it's fun, if you all love it together."

Her fascination with astronomy started early. "I'd see other little girls reading Seventeen; I was reading Discover and National Geographic," she shrugs. "By the end of fifth grade, I weaseled out of 'I want to be a baker, I want to be a farmer' and fell in love with astronomy." Her grandfather graduated from MIT and rose to a vice presidency at McDonnell Douglas; on long walks, she used to pester him to show her Venus, show her Jupiter, explain why the planets are all so different, why the moon changes shape, why the constellations shift.

She never felt the cool detachment of the cosmos, but even as a child she "always thought that the earth was very small and very insignificant." Now, what she struggles to comprehend isn't the vastness of the universe, it's the pettiness of so many human concerns: the consuming interest in O.J., the disproportionate fuss over Clinton's peccadillos. "Sometimes people's materialistic values and superficial tendencies are ridiculous," she says politely. "My friends sometimes get on my nerves -- if you're so focused on the way your hair looks and the nail polish you have on and the guys you have kissed, you lose touch with how much can be accomplished. To be able to learn, to want to learn, is an amazing thing."

Outside college, Gleason sees a lot of people who "just don't care. They'd rather sit around and watch TV than read a book about the creation of our solar system. I find it saddening." Ah, but does she understand it? She nods slowly. "It takes effort to want to know."

Are people put off by her intelligence? "I don't know as I'm bright," she replies cheerfully. "My test scores are about average. I'm just very ambitious. And extremely self-critical, sometimes to a point where it's damaging.

"I just feel this passion," she bursts. "All these different planets and elements have come together to make these extraordinary creations. To not figure that out, not try to understand it, is a shame -- because it is the root of our existence. None of us would be here if stars didn't die."

She's not being lyrical: Stars are born, live and die just as we do, and our Earth condensed from a cloud of interstellar gas and dust that collapsed some four-and-a-half billion years ago. "I'm very much interested in the origins of the universe," says Gleason, "why certain elements band together to create such a magnificent planet which yields life, while others have not."

You're tempted to ask that inane stock question, "Do you have a favorite ... planet?" "The moon, actually," she replies. "I'm in love with the moon. I don't think there is any organic or inorganic entity more beautiful." Eventually she'd like to help create a "biosphere," a bubble on the moon where life as we know it could exist. "Right now funds are quite low for anything like that," she notes ruefully. "NASA is not high on the list."

Gleason's ultimate dream is "to become an astronaut, be some sort of mission specialist, do research up in space. I'll settle for nothing else. So it's that or death, I suppose. I'm a very intense person.

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