June 29, 2017

My Personal Connection with the Universe

Even since I was young, I’ve looked towards the stars. One of my earliest memories was looking up at the cresent moon, in conjunction with some bright planet (probably Venus) as my Aunt Lorraine carried me up to our apartment in Mapleton, Maine. Not that I knew what any of these objects were. I just thought that they were bright and shiny, and due my rapt attention. All these years later, a rising moon still draws me outdoors.
I moved on to a steady diet of Science Fiction in my early childhood, from Star Trek (the original Star Trek) to Space 1999, to endless piles of comic books. I devowered all the classics like War of the Worlds and shows like the Twilight Zone. Then, one summer in 1976, Star Wars erupted on the scene and literally gave a generation its own mythology. Still, all of this parralleled my interest in science. I became accutely aware that I would not grow up to inhabit the same world I saw around me.
I remember watching the last of the Apollo moonshots, curled up with my mom on her bed in the early morning. I also watched the linkup of the Apollo-Soyuz, and me and my friends would play out the historical meeting of astronaut and cosmonaut on the school playground. It thrilled me to think that in addition to my heroes in SciFi land, there were real explorers headed skyward.
My mom also made sure to spur our interest in science and nature; the yearly Perseid meteor shower was the highlight of summer. I still remember shivering under a blanket in a lawn chair (it still can get cold at night in Northern Maine, even in August!), watching silent fireballs slide across the sky. She also showed me how to safely project the sun to see sunspots with an old draw tube refractor, and then years later, confiscated my unsafe eyepiece filter that came with my new refractor (thanks, mom. You probably saved my sight!)
All through my childhood through teenage years, my interest in astronomy waxed and waned. Some years, I was out nearly every clear night, noting the position of the planets. Other years, I barely looked at the sky. This continued through my enlistment in the military and my adult years. Still, I felt that my knowledge and interest in astronomy gave me a certain connectedness with things. I like to have some knowledge of were I am and were I’m heading in space and time. I always find it remarkable when I meet someone who cannot pinpoint their home on a map or has no grasp on even modern history (in America, this person might hold a PhD!) Of course, as J.B. Haledane once remarked, some things about the universe are stranger than we can imagine. I’m OK with not knowing everything. If anything, this gives me a comforting perspective. To me, its good to know that its all relative; even the most enormous of problems we have here on Earth are pretty mundane from a cosmic perspective.
To achieve a clear balance, I feel one must be both inward and outward looking. Activities like distance running are very inward looking. I’m constantly pushing for farther distances or personnal bests. Astronomy, on the other hand, is a very outward looking pursuit. It forces one to come to grips with the sheer enormity of it all. I’ll never forget one evening working at the Flandreau Observatory in Tucson, Arizona. We were viewing the Orion Nebula, and the conversation turned towards supernovae, white dwarfs, and the lives of stars. “Eventually,” I mentioned off-handedly, “The sun will swell up to a red giant, probably burning the Earth to a cinder in the process. But by that time, mankind will either be extinct or have evolved into something else.” A young girl seemed taken back by that statement. “I hadn’t thought of that…” There is a pervasive feeling that everything that is has been and will always be. Statements like “Time and space were formed at an instant” or “the universe will accelerate forever” seem nonsensical because they are simply outside of our everyday experience. Our hunter gatherer brains may be clever, but aren’t equiped (yet?) to handle infinity. I quickly assured the girl that we live in the age of mediocrity, mid-way through the suns’ 4 billion year life span. I hope I didn’t magnify her teenage angst.
I’m thankful for this interconnectedness with things, both in time and space. We’ve got one sole vantage point in both to peer at a big universe. If anything, this excites me. I’m glad to be a clever enough ape to hope and understand some things, and to live in a time when they are just becoming uncovered. I’ll continue to step out every clear night and encourage others to follow!

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