February 27, 2024

I thought of it – our ancient tremors in front of a vast and unknown sky – when I heard the real shock in some videos. A small sounding girl tried to keep the panic out of her voice when she asked her mother, “Mom, are we all right?” Often, however, the fear sounded almost incredulous, as if those twenty-first-century storytellers – who had long doubted that heaven had any real surprises to offer – suddenly questioned this assumption. Mark Twain died shortly after the comet returned, 75 years after he was born under it.

Our social media selves are becoming more and more crafted and curated, but these shots accidentally captured something intimate and revealed.

“Are we about to die?” Some people in the videos asked each other and laughed restlessly. One man wondered, “Are we about to look like dinosaurs?” Others called the fire department even though the sky was on fire. You had to call someone. But there were also those who seemed to accept the secret. The frightened little girl was with her mother and, it sounded, with her grandmother. She finally asked her what everyone else was asking, “What is this?” The grandmother had an enviable, almost knowing acceptance in her voice as she calmly replied, “We don’t know.”

The missile wasn’t a big deal from one perspective: it was one of ten missiles launched globally in March, and when it reentered the atmosphere it became at least a tenth piece of space debris bigger than a ton so this year . But seeing it burn through the darkness clearly felt monumental to the people below. Our social media selves are becoming more and more crafted and curated, but these recordings inadvertently captured something intimate and revealed about the people who recorded them. Each voice expressed a transcendent moment of raw emotion. There were the happy voices that were so excited and confused they couldn’t stop talking, and the ones whose amazement and amusement exploded into laughter, sometimes when the videos showed them running to the lights.

Others have been in such ardent awe that I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it filled their voices with tenderness. What they said was calm and ordinary – “Oh my god” or “This is beautiful” or “What do I see?” – but it was also alive and overwhelmed and awesome. They couldn’t help but love her a little just because of the depth of feeling in their voices, because they had allowed themselves to be overtaken by the weirdness of that unknowable and humiliating thing way above them. By pointing their cameras up, they inadvertently recorded themselves.

One of my favorite videos was shot in Oregon. At the beginning, the camera is aimed at a tree where fireballs are emerging from behind the branches. The sound is loud with the throbbing of frogs, and the person recording seems very strongly attached to the planet it is on. He doesn’t say much in the video. Actually just a single word, but it feels like he’s putting all of his agitated and confused self into it, recreating an old and original moment in this way. Down here on earth, surrounded by frogs, he looks at the sky and asks: “What?”

Source photos: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images; Heritage Art / Heritage Images, via Getty Images; Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images; Screen recordings from Twitter.

Brooke Jarvis is a contributing writer for the magazine. Some of their posts dealt with what Covid-19 has taught us about olfactory science, Washington’s hectic cherry picking, and building a movement by young climate activists.