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Monday, August 30, 2010

Globophobia, Bolshaphobia, and the Kessler Syndrome

Twenty years ago, I discovered an intriguing fact about a coworker. An attractive, confident women in her early thirties, she had a master’s degree and a glass-is-half-full attitude. One day, a visitor appeared at our office door with several helium balloons and a card addressed to one of our student workers. After signing for the delivery, my coworker passed the balloons and card to someone else in our office, and quickly left the room. When she returned several minutes later, she was pale and falling apart.

Later in the afternoon she confessed to a fear of balloons since childhood. But she didn't know why. As a child, she had been ambivalent about birthday parties. Isn't your father a policeman? I asked. He was a cop, no less, with a dark sense of humor. (This blog’s legal team has instructed me to go no further than to note that Dad had once tried to freak out Mom by planting CSI-type evidence in the freezer.) Then it occurred to me: my friend’s fear might have stemmed from her dread over balloons popping, a sound not unlike that of some low-caliber handguns. That, she responded, made some sense. But she just wasn’t sure about the cause and origins of her fear, which is clinically known as globophobia.


Fears for the Rest of Us. Praise the gods of randomness! you might be thinking, for having spared you, your family, and your friends from balloon terrors and other surprising phobias (see Wikipedia's phobia roster). But don't sigh so fast! Many of us have imbibed phobic cocktails collectively. A generation ago bolshaphobia (fear of communists) and nucleomituphobia (fear of nuclear weapons) were all the rage. When I visited my dentist a month after 9/11, he noted that business was booming—his patients were grinding and breaking teeth, fillings, and crowns faster than he could say, Please rinse. And now as we move on with our lives, the specter of accelerating global warming must certainly be taking its collective psychic toll and stoking the therapist’s time-honored mantra--I’m sorry, but we have to stop.

Rx for the Author of Wig & Pen. Since little is normal about this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn that its proprietor is in the vanguard among those with an aspiring collective phobia. It involves the Kessler Syndrome, which entails the scary geometric progression of space junk. Here’s how it works. Most artificial satellites travel just outside the earth’s atmosphere in low-Earth orbits. That allows them to communicate effectively with the earth’s surface and to do exciting things like snooping on military and business facilities. When one of these satellites breaks up, either due to collisions or to deliberate destruction (in 2007 the Chinese blew up their Fengyun-1C spacecraft while testing an antisatellite weapon), it exudes thousands of pieces, each which can take out other satellites. Thus, space junk begets more space junk, which begets much more space junk. Stopping the proliferation involves forcing the junk into the earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. Proposals include deflecting the junk with lasers or through collisions with special satellites made from super-strong light-weight materials.

Such science high-jinx gives little solace to Wig & Pen’s afflicted blogster, but as a name, the Kessler Syndrome has a ring worth suffering for. Had George Costanza or Alvy Singer [Woody Allen's role in Annie Hall ] the chance, they might have embraced it with angst. Shouldn’t the name of both the phobia and the junk-generating phenomenon be one and the same? And shouldn’t the author of Wig & Pen be the first to earn the diagnosis?

The Kessler Syndrome

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