Friday, April 25, 2014

Reach for the stars

When I was eleven, I found nothing in my world nearly as beautiful as the full-color pictures of the Orion Nebula in the pages of Astronomy magazine.

Always a nerdy girl who couldn't decide between the Barbie Dream House and the Millennium Falcon, I became obsessed with the night sky and with the burning desire for my own telescope when I was in fifth grade. I don't know how it started, but I know that by Christmas of my 6th-grade year I was lobbying hard for a backyard telescope. It took my parents so off-guard that my mother began to ask her hair clients if they knew anything about amateur astronomy. It turns out one did, and before the telescope came I inherited five years' worth of back issues of Astronomy magazine, cast-offs from the college-departed son of one of Mom's ladies.

The magazines, it would turn out, were better than the telescope itself.

The telescope we could afford, purchased at Toys 'R' Us, was a huge disappointment. My dad and I could see the craters of the moon and, with a solar filter we probably shouldn't have trusted (I swear I haven't being seeing colors as brightly the past 29 years), some impressive sunspot activity. But stars were no starrier through the lens of our scope, and Jupiter and Saturn and Mars no more than small bright discs with no detail. The telescope sat in the corner of my bedroom collecting dust until I myself went off to college, when it became the problem of our local thrift store.

But no dust gathered on the Astronomy magazines.

I marveled at galaxies, nebulae, and clusters, and the amazing telescopes, trackers, and specialized cameras that made capturing their images in colorful, detailed glory possible. I wondered what sort of training one needed to have that job--sit at an observatory under a huge reflector telescope seeking and finding the marvels of our vast universe. Years later I found out that the training one needs to do this job actually requires a hell of a lot of advanced math, so I lost interest in it as a career. But I never lost interest in looking through a telescope and seeing the beautiful and amazing universe we live in.

So much so that I majored in astronomy in our state's Governor's Scholars program and lived for the Wednesday night viewings out in light-pollution-free rural central Kentucky, where I first looked through an amateur telescope large enough to allow me to see the rings of Saturn. Seeing that planet through a good eyepiece for the first time, at once both smaller and larger than I imagined, I gasped. It didn't look real; it had the pastel hue and crisp edges of a piece of penny candy someone had dangled at the end of my field of vision. But there it was--a celestial body I knew was so far away its light took five hours to reach my eye, but so close it seemed I could reach out and grab it.

Yet outside of viewing nights, my astronomy major was all math-y and physics-y and involved discussions of the big bang and photons and black holes and the space-time continuum. I was an arts-and-humanities-brained person trying to grasp quantum mechanics. I grew miserable and felt dumb on a daily basis and didn't look through a telescope again for years. But, oh--Saturn's rings. That's the stuff of poetry.

Flash-forward two decades. Two GSP astronomy majors have a daughter who likes to watch shows hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Jason, wanting a high-quality amateur scope without a high-quality pricetag, built a large reflector telescope so good that one of our friends used her iPhone to capture a picture of Saturn's rings through the eyepiece. Let me repeat that, so me at eleven can have her mind blown--I married someone who built a telescope powerful enough to show the rings of Saturn (and one of her moons) at a time when nearly all humans have a high-quality camera on a phone they carry with them all the time in their pockets.

In another plane of existence, in a parallel universe, 6th-grade me just got the shivers.

Last night, to make sure Ainsley's and Jason's spring break fun went out with a (big) bang, we took a family field trip to an observatory. Reservations were made before we knew it would be a cloudy night, but even on cloudy nights seeing a movable observation roof, a giant antique telescope, and getting a lecture on deep-space objects is good geeky family time. Luck, for a change, was on our side--shortly after dark, at the end of the lecture, the skies temporarily cleared. We took turns gazing at Mars, Jupiter with 4 of her moons, and a double star. The detail of these bodies was the best I've ever seen. I was giddy. It wasn't a page from one of those long-lost Astronomy magazines, but it was the stuff nerdy dreams are made of. And my own 11-year-old and my husband were just as in awe as I was.

I burned through a lot of dreams when I was kid. Like many, I dreamed of being rich, of being famous, or being a star. For a while, I dreamed simply of seeing stars. Not with my naked, nearsighted eyes, but in a way that makes this huge and overwhelming universe feel a tiny bit smaller. A tiny bit more accessible. A tiny bit more human.

On a suddenly clear night in April, my family beside me, I finally got to look through a huge professional telescope and see the details of another world. I reached for the stars and grasped them. And it was just as amazing as the Orion Nebula on the pages of a hand-me-down magazine.


Robert K. said...

One of the many things I miss about Centre was going out to Perryville Battlefield late at night, away from the light pollution of the bustling metropolis of Danville, and being able to see the Milky Way.

Library Lady said...

I miss that too, Rob. Even on campus you could see more stars than I could as a kid south of Cincinnati, and we also were there when comet Hyakutake buzzed by and lit up the sky. It was a great 4 years of star-gazing.