Origins

I don’t know when I first looked up and saw the stars. I was born in Coney Island, and spent the first few years of my life in the greater metropolitan area. Probably the first rich star field I saw was simulated, projected on the dome of the Vanderbilt Planetarium on the north shore of Long Island. I didn’t believe that simulation. It looked fake and impossible. The sky I knew was hazy and orange with only the brightest of celestial bodies shining through.

It wasn’t the only way in which my childhood perspective was limited and transcribed by simulation. I couldn’t imagine historical events before the 1940s in color. I harbored a strange suspicion that color vision itself was an evolutionary development of the mid-century. Weird, I know. I still can’t watch color footage of World War II without feeling it’s somehow not quite authentic.

Anyway, the simulacrum of stars and planets had me hooked, and I became a space and astronomy nut. I remember staying up late with my mom on the back porch of our house in Williston Park, watching a lunar eclipse. Then, one day, I came home, and my Mom was gone and the car was packed and my Dad said we were going to the mountains. My mom had suffered a nervous breakdown (the first in a string of seven…one for each prominent star in the Plaides) and my Dad thought it better to get me out of there. It was in Lake Placid that I first saw an unpolluted night sky. And was transformed.

Astronomy has been part of my life for longer than it hasn’t. During high school, I’d host parties for my friends on the tennis court across the street, usually for the Perseids meteor shower in August. I’d show them Jupiter and it’s four largest moons through a terrible old 60mm telescope. One night, while walking my dog Maggie, I saw a meteor streak across the sky, something I’d seen many time before. But instead of fading out, it abruptly changed, went from white streak of light to a blue pinpoint, and changed course. Through the upper atmosphere, and probably very tiny and very hot, it drifted, more slowly now, in a straight line to the ground, disappearing over the horizon of trees. I was stunned and excited. I ran home to tell my father and step-mother, who were watching TV. “That’s nice, dear,” they said. Or something like that. It was hard to communicate what I saw.

I think that’s a general truth. The universe is hard to communicate. It’s hard to make the words, bend such earth-bound meanings to capture things so massive, so far away, so energetic, so hot, so cold. But what a challenge!

I lost astronomy for a few years, delved into politics and international relations. I found it again only as an adult, and it’s added an important force of focus and balance to my life. Now, I’m more forgiving of people and humanity in general, and more hopeful. Less than a century ago, we had no idea we lived in a galaxy, or that there were others. Now, so much more has been revealed. Our perspective is deepening every minute, and the more people understand where they are in the universe, well, the better off we’ll be.

8 thoughts on “Origins

  1. I really enjoy your writing. You are a thoughtful and humble person with a gift.
    I don’t read blogs, and was a bit surprised to find myself here reading. I have tried , but generally find them self-indulgent and rambling.
    Good job.

    • David,
      Thanks so much for writing. It’s great to know the blog is reaching people, and that I’m avoiding the self-indulgent and rambling trap–though I think I always have to be careful about it; the medium itself encourages it. cheers!
      doug

  2. I’m sorry I missed the Montezuma star party last night, if you managed to have it. Here in Clifton Springs, it was cloudy and rained (poured) for a time. I was wondering if you have any more scheduled, or whether you’d be interested in trying one at the Montezuma Audubon Center (just north of Savannah)?

    • Dave–we hope to reschedule the Montezuma party. I will be doing some outreach in the Geneva area soon, and I’ll try to post that on the front page of my blog in advance. It’s hard because sometimes I’ll go spur of the moment, like last night, when I went to a lecture at HWS and set up the scope afterwards.

  3. Hello Doug,
    Many thanks for sharing your stories with us, — space has always held a fascination for me, — I am a lapsed member of the Cotswold Astronomical Society in Cheltenham – in England- — I do not have the time I would like, to devote to the hobby unfortunately.- Cheltonians have been asked how we would like to change Cheltenham, — I suggested the town invests in a PLANETARIUM, — the town has a yearly Science Festival and a small planetarium is set up when the festival is on, — but I was suggesting a PERMANENT ONE, — there are a few multi millionares in Cheltenham , ( I am not one), who could cover the cost of this, and let a few moths out of their wallets.

  4. In the scalar analogy using salt and velvet, does the size of the grain serve as a factor of comparison to the size of a star, which determines, in turn, the seven mile space between grains? Perhaps it would be better stated: Is there a scale relationship between grain diameter and average interstellar distance? It is a great concept and I would not want to misstate the truth of it.

    • Jeff,
      Great question. The galaxy model with felt and salt is not as directly representational as some of the solar system models are, where we’re dealing with far fewer bodies about which much more is known (diameters, distances, etc). The galactic model is much harder to design, especially since it’s really a mental model and not an operational one.

      The grain size of the salt is not taken into account. In this sense, the model takes a telescopic view of stars–that they are points of light. A model that did include the vast differences in stellar diameters would quickly loose its usefulness as a simplified but graspable metaphor, in part because we’d need a kind of salt with greatly variable grain size that also happened to account for the distribution of different stellar sizes in the galaxy. I know we have a sense of where the Milky Way stars fall on this distribution, but you could see where it would quickly get out of hand as a teaching model.

      For distances, it’s the same issue; accuracy makes the model untenable. Obviously stars are not distributed across the galaxy equally, with far greater numbers in and near the core. That we know, but we’re still learning what the rest looks like. The model of the many-armed Milky Way that I grew up with is now quite different, and likely to change again. The model runs into the limits of our present knowledge. We’re not even sure about how many stars there are in the Milky Way–and the discrepancies in estimates are not small (+- 100 billion!). So the 7 miles is meant to represent the average density, but I’m not sure it’s even as representative as that. The point of the 7 miles it that it’s far–very, very far, between most stars, and to give people a basic building block with which to start to construct the bigger picture. Which of course quickly grows past our comprehension.

      I’m not entirely happy with those abstractions…I wish I could find a more defensible number than 7 miles. I’ve looked and can’t seem to find much on average interstellar distances. I’d love to refine the model further, however.

  5. Hi.
    Am an amateur astronomer in the Finger Lakes area (north of Geneva, NY). I teach the subject at the high school level and local community college. Am also very interested in both archaeoastronmy and the search for life in the greater universe – intelligent and otherwise. I have a good working knowledge of the night sky, astronomical history and also have a 10″ scope and would like to help out at local star parties – including the upcoming one in Geneva. Who can I get in touch with to offer my help?
    thanks and keep up the good work.

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