Jerry Zezima: Our potholes are out of this world

By Jerry Zezima - Tribune News Service

Jerry Zezima

Jerry Zezima

Space - the one between my ears - is the final frontier. Or at least I thought so before I took a voyage in the car ship Zezima. My mission: to see an eminent astronomer and find out why lunar craters, Martian chasms and other galactic bumps in the road are nothing compared to the potholes on my street.

“It’s like driving on the surface of the moon,” I told Fred Walter, a professor of astronomy at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. “I’m afraid I’ll hit a pothole and go into a black hole.”

“There’s a hole on Mars called Pavonis Mons that’s 35 meters across and 20 meters deep,” said Walter, calculating that the measurements equal 115 feet by 65 feet. “That’ll stall your car.”

“That’s nothing. There are some on the expressway that must be even bigger,” I said. “I hit one the other day and thought my car would explode. Now I know how the astronauts felt when they drove those lunar rovers.”

Walter knew I was referring to the vehicles used in the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 moon landings of 1971 and ‘72.

“They’re like convertibles - no roofs,” he said. “And no doors.”

“The astronauts were lucky they didn’t get thrown out when they hit a crater,” I said. “I hope they were wearing seat belts.”

“Rovers don’t have them,” Walter said.

“At least there were no cops on the moon to give them a ticket,” I noted.

Even though some lunar craters are comparable to terrestrial potholes, the astronauts never had to worry about blowing out a tire.

“The edges of moon craters tend to erode, so they’re not as jagged as the potholes here on Earth,” Walter said. “And rovers have metal mesh wheels, so they are a lot stronger than the tires on your car.”

“I guess the astronauts didn’t have to call AAA,” I said, referring to what should be named the Aeronautical Assistance Association.

I told Walter that I took astronomy in college because I thought it would be fun.

“How did you do?” he asked.

“I almost flunked,” I replied. “I didn’t realize - because I was a stupid college student - that it involved math.”

“I do as little math as possible,” said Walter, who’s 67 and graduated from MIT in 1976.

“I knew all the planets,” I said. “And I once saw a meteor shower. I figured that was enough.”

“Astronomy is an observational science,” Walter said, “but it’s a lot more than just knowing the planets.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, “I was devastated when Pluto was demoted.”

“It deserved to be,” he said about the decision in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union to downgrade Pluto to the status of “dwarf planet.”

“I bet the [Walt] Disney Company had something to do with it,” I said. “They probably thought the planet was competing with their cartoon dog.”

“Nonsense,” Walter said. “Pluto is tiny and far out. What would you rather be, the runt of the planets or the king of the dwarf planets?”

“I’m not even a star here on Earth,” I said.

Another planetary controversy, I posited, is the correct pronunciation of “Uranus.”

“It’s not how you think it’s pronounced,” Walter said, a disappointing revelation for a jokester like yours truly. “But you can say it the funny way, too.”

“Good,” I said. “It’s appropriate for a planet that’s made of gas.”

Uranus and the other gas giants - Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune - don’t have potholes because their surfaces aren’t solid.

“But Pluto has them, right?” I asked Walter.

“In a manner of speaking,” he said, explaining that the little rocky ball is covered in ice. “The surface has craters. If you want to call them potholes, go right ahead.”

In addition to Earth and Mars, two other terrestrial planets - Mercury and Venus - have craters.

So, of course, does the moon.

“Some are very big and some are very small,” said Walter, who has been teaching astronomy at Stony Brook for 33 years and is a fan of the original “Star Trek” TV series.

“I use a flip phone and it’s usually turned off,” he said. “I miss my old phone, which was the size and shape of a ‘Star Trek’ phaser. I could flip it open with one hand.”

He also drives a 2007 Honda Civic.

“It has a stick shift,” said Walter, who is married with two grown daughters and three grandchildren. “I taught one of my daughters to drive a stick shift when she was in high school. She said it impressed the boys.”

“Have you hit any potholes?” I asked.

“Yes,” he admitted. “There’s one on Sheep Pasture Road that’s huge. I hit it recently, but the car wasn’t damaged. It’s really well built.”

It helps, Walter said, to drive slowly.

“I go only 5 miles per hour over the speed limit,” he said. “Maybe 10. I try to go around them.”

He added that asteroid and meteor strikes and the freeze-thaw cycle contribute to the creation of craters and, of course, potholes.

“The universe surprises us,” Walter told me. “It’s always expanding. Everything gets emptier with time.”

“My head has already achieved that,” I said.

“No comment,” the good professor replied.

“Admit it,” I said. “The space between my ears would make for a pretty good pothole.”

Jerry Zezima Zezima

By Jerry Zezima

Tribune News Service

Jerry Zezima writes a humor column for Tribune News Service and is the author of six books. His latest is “One for the Ageless: How to Stay Young and Immature Even If You’re Really Old.” Reach him at [email protected] or via

Jerry Zezima writes a humor column for Tribune News Service and is the author of six books. His latest is “One for the Ageless: How to Stay Young and Immature Even If You’re Really Old.” Reach him at [email protected] or via

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