Thursday, April 26, 2012

Connections: Notes For A Medium Opus I

Does anyone remember this program?

The show offered the marvelous thought that the lines we draw in our understanding of how the world is and works are not at all straight; indeed, the curves and intersections create a tapestry that cannot be unwound. Tracing the lines can be daunting, yet also marvelously surprising in how they lead us so far afield from whence we began.

What follows in this and subsequent posts in this series are some thoughts and reflections on the way I have worked to make connections among disparate parts of human experience, trying to understand how they weave together the marvel of human existence. While certainly worthy of study for its own sake, my own goal has always been understanding toward a particular goal: a life together worth living, in which all human beings are free, equal, treated with dignity and respect, and work together for keeping our whole world a better, decent, safe place for us to live.

This journey of mine began on a summer afternoon in 1982. Like many such journeys, it began not because I had decided to set off on it; it started, rather, because I was bored. Ramming around my empty house, I found a year-old National Geographic magazine. I probably picked it up because the cover photo of Saturn was interesting. I flipped to the story and the very first page offered a piece of information that troubled me. On a two-page photo of Saturn taken from Voyager 1 as it sped up and away from the planet after flying past it and its many moons, came the fact that Saturn was a billion kilometers from Earth.

I had no idea what that meant.

Not that I didn't know what a kilometer was. Nor was I ignorant of the figure "one billion". Put together this way, however, offered something that, in my young life, I had never experienced: I couldn't understand what those words, put together the way they were, referenced. What was "one billion kilometers"? The small city of Binghamton was forty miles from Waverly; that seemed a very long way away. My oldest sister and her husband lived in Rochester, which might as well be near Saturn somewhere. My mother's family, and my cousins on that side of the family, were in Dayton, OH, which seemed as odd and foreign a thing to consider as saying they lived in Bangladesh.

How could I understand "one billion kilometers" in any way that rendered it intelligible? I would spend quite a bit of free time over ensuing days and weeks reading and re-reading that cover story on Voyager 1's Saturn fly-by. From the discovery of the so-called Shepherd Moons - I've never forgotten one mission specialist's comment that their behavior violated the laws of celestial mechanics but, and I quote, "they seem to know what they're doing" - to the first photo of the Saturnian moon Mimas, with its mammoth crater that caused one person, seeing it for the first time, to shout, "That's no moon, that's a space station!".
After absorbing as much of the article as I could, I was left with something that, in hindsight, I can name easily enough: wonder. From realizing I couldn't really understand what was meant by the expression "one billion kilometers" to the idea that there were these weird little moons out there that had no idea what we human beings thought they should be doing to the sheer variety and beauty of the whole, it was an aesthetic experience unlike anything I'd ever had. More than anything, I lacked any vocabulary to describe the event, my feelings, or what I was thinking. Looking back, I find it even more troubling that I wasn't even aware I didn't have such a vocabulary, or that there was such a thing as multiple vocabularies that serve a variety of purposes. All I knew for sure was several seeds were planted across several summer days just before my senior year in high school that continue to push me forward.

In retrospect, I can see more clearly what was happening. At its most basic, I was trying to find a connection between this story of Voyager's encounter with Saturn and my own life and what was, I was coming to understand, my paltry grasp of the enormity of the Universe in which we live. Sure, there was something awesome about the whole thing, the pictures were beautiful and strange, and the information was changing the way we understood things worked. But what does it mean? More specifically, how can I take this information and make it relevant to my life?

These questions have kept me from ever resting comfortably with my understanding of the world. While I hope I've learned how to phrase them more accurately, these questions keep me curious and interested in the many things in our universe. They have pushed me to study a variety of matters, from language to science to politics to history to sociology, in order to figure out if they are pieces of a larger puzzle, or just random bits of stuff without any inherent connection to anything else. Along the way I've learned a thing or two, I hope I've gained the words to express what I think, to ask the questions that need asking in the way they need to be asked. Most of all, that basic sense of awe I felt that long-ago summer has not waned. The Universe we human beings inhabit is an enormous, strange, dangerous place, filled with things we cannot imagine, sometimes things that have no idea that we claim to understand them, instead going about their business without a thought to our insistent declaration that we understand the way things work.

The rest of the posts in this series will describe how I made the connections among the many questions that flowed from those first, most basic ones that were birthed in the awe at the beauty and strangeness of some pictures of a place very far away. I've made some of the connections, I would like to think; others remain elusive, which is why I keep going, trying to figure stuff out. I've also come to some conclusions that inform my way of beginning to understand the world, what I might call, for lack of a better word, axioms that I cheerfully understand could be wrong, but are necessary for getting on with.

Two notes on the whole Saturn thing. This post, and the ones that follow, were sparked by a story at the BBC about the Cassini Spacecraft and its orbital mission around Saturn. The story references the discovery of geysers on the moon Enceladus. The few photos from V-1 were blurry, taken from a great distance, and revealed little except that the place seemed incredibly smooth. It was well known that the moon was made up of water ice. Its location in orbit seemed to offer the intriguing possibility that gravitational pressure might keep it geologically active, thus refreshing the surface with water flows from beneath the miles-deep crust of ice. Sure enough, in sillouhette against the light from its parent planet, were enormous water geysers. I read the article, and it reminded me how much of what I continue to do to this day began with that long-ago article in National Geographic.

In the winter of 1991, a lady friend and I were at an antique shop in rural Maryland, somewhere between Baltimore and Washington. We weren't really all that interested in buying, but window shopping at antique shops is great fun. I was perusing a shelf holding some books and old magazines when something caught my attention. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Buried in a stack of other old copies of National Geographic was a copy of that very same issue - Volume 160, Number 1, from July, 1981 - for sale for a dime. I couldn't tell my lady friend why I had to have that particular magazine. There was no way I could make her understand how important this silly thing was to me. I think she understood my excitement; I remember a comment she made about the expression on my face. I held that magazine tight, dropped dime in the kitty, and, through the twists and turns and many moves to disparate places, it is still with me. In fact, it's sitting next to my laptop on my desk, the cover photo staring back at me as I type this. I've come a very long way since I first encountered the story and pictures and the questions it forced upon me; all the same, I am amazed at how beautiful that cover photo is, how strange. I am glad to have this particular magazine at hand to remind me that every story has a beginning, and the my own story started right here.

Virtual Tin Cup

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