Tuesday, February 08, 2011


My undergraduate alma mater, Alfred University, rests quietly in a spot best described as "the middle of nowhere". Small, almost the poster child for small western New York universities and colleges, it boasts among its many distinctions, the inventor of the air hockey table. One of the physics professors there, the late John Stull, created it as a lab tool for experimenting with zero-friction. For some reason, a toy company got wind of it and wanted to buy Stull's patent. Because he was a Ph.D., had a really good lawyer, or both, Stull refused to sell his patent. Instead, he licensed it, including a share of the profits. He became a wealthy man.

One of the things he did with that money was build a four-telescope observatory near the top of one of the hills just south of campus. Because it sits, as I say, in the middle of nowhere, it is uniquely suited for astronomical observation. The University offered, as a general science elective to fulfill basic liberal arts requirements, a four-credit astronomy lab. Running from eight pm until midnight one night a week, "astro lab", as it was known, was popular, among other reasons, because, locked in the top of the observatory with one or two partners was a marvelous opportunity to sneak in some weed or beer, and blow one's mind even as one checked out the wonders of the universe (not that I ever did either, I think to the frustration of my lab partner, a sophomore and sister at one of Alfred's three sororities).

The first time you put your eye to a real telescope like this, it can be quite mind-blowing. After siting it and orienting it - you find your way in the night sky by using co-ordinates known as right-ascension and declination, two of the few terms I have carried with me for all these years - you can find pretty much anything. The thing is, though, very often the patch of sky toward which the telescope may point will appear quite blank, a big black patch. You put your eye to the 'scope, and . . . you see stars. Maybe even hundreds. You might be looking at one of the small globular clusters that circle our galaxy, say, or perhaps a well-known but otherwise invisible star or double-star system. The Crab Nebula, always a favorite of mine, is beautiful through a telescope.

A prize possession of mine is a National Geographic Magazine from 1981 that featured an article with pictures of the Voyager I fly-by of Saturn. For some reason I still can't really understand, I was entranced by both the images and the accompanying story, the way the pictures puzzled astronomers, to the point that some of the images seemed to suggest many of the theories regarding orbital mechanics were obviously wrong. In the winter of 1991, I happened to find this very same magazine in a pile of books in an antique mall in rural Maryland. I picked it up for two bucks, and it sits on my book shelf to this day.

Yesterday, a friend of mine on Facebook linked to this site that offers one of those telescoping perspective shots in a series of photographs. Starting with the earth/moon system, we move ever outward until we encounter a mega-galaxy thirteen billion light years distant. One need hardly go that far through the series of photographs, however, to have one's mind blown. The photo showing Rigel and Aldebaran, two nearby stars in our galaxy, swallowing up not just our sun, but the entire solar system is enough to make you stop and wonder.

Our grasp of these things is, I would wager, minimal. Consider, as a fer-instance, the conflict over the Palestinian territories in the Middle East. The total size of the West Bank and Gaza strip is 6,020 square kilometers. For scale, my current state of residence, Illinois, is over 55,000 square miles. Indeed, our smallest state, Hawaii, at just over 6400 square miles, is larger than the Palestinian territories. Much of that region of our world is transfixed by a couple parcels of land that, together, are smaller than the smallest state in the US, could, in fact, disappear quite nicely as a county or two in one of the larger states of the union.

This is not to suggest that size equals importance, or that the conflict over Palestine, or in any other region of the world needs to be set aside. Rather, it is only to suggest that our perspectives on cosmic distances is limited by our experience of terrestrial distance. My commute to work is about as long as a drive from Jerusalem to the northern border of Israel with Lebanon, another hot spot. I drive it without thinking too much other than the country roads I take offer a bit of peace and quiet. Looking at the photo of Betelgeuse swallowing up Aldebaran, rendering our solar system invisible in the process, is literally impossible to grasp in any but the most superficial way. We have nothing in our collective experience with which to compare these images. All we can do is sit, a bit slack-jawed, and be silent.

When we speak of "creation" as a theological concept, it is always a nice idea to have access to stuff like this series of photograph. It keeps us from being too parochial in our concerns, too limited in our perspective, too small in our thinking. It might even encourage some people to shut up and just consider what their eyes cannot behold on a clear night sky.

Virtual Tin Cup

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