The excitement in the bunch of children gathered was palpable. They were united by a sense of wonder and pleasant anticipation. Were they really going to be able to touch the telescope, and see something remarkable? A bar stool had been borrowed from a kindly neighbor and the little telescope was perched on it. An earthworm like line was formed with the children waiting to get a turn at the telescope. It was as wiggly and restless as an earthworm, and just as fascinating to watch from a safe distance.
Mars in the distance shone with the iridescence of a star. Mars has been exceptionally bright in the evening skies, and the Mars viewing party was happening on the week it was closest to the Earth.
Mars has fascinated mankind for centuries. It started with hoaxes of finding extra terrestrial life on Mars: maybe those rigged lines on the planet were canals? said a 19th century astronomer, and from that hypothesis, sprang a vibrant story of alien life. In our enthusiasm to find extra terrestrial neighbors, the populace went along. That kind of hope is refreshing even if misguided.
Tonight the telescope we had with us was only as big as a professional camera, and I hoped it would not disappoint the children gathered.
While the telescope was being deftly handled by the husband, I diverted the attention of the children skyward. Their questions about progress were distracting the misguided astronomer who was pointing the lens towards the stile on our neighbor’s roof, and wondering how he could see things fluttering there (I pointed to the sycamore tree nearby that had shed a few of its leaves on the stile, and crushed the poor fish’s soul about finding extra terrestrial life on Mars. Andy Weir might have imagined potato cultivation on Mars, but even by his standards, a sycamore tree was a leap, I told him kindly. He guffawed loudly at this and fiddled on.)
In the meanwhile, I pointed out the familiar constellations to the hopeful looking children. The budding astronomers were skeptical.
‘How do you know it is Big Dipper?’
‘It could be anything or nothing’, said another, and quickly the pendulum swung from hope to disillusionment. I managed a quick save by not letting it swing too far, and told them about the excellent app, Skyview, using which they could confirm the stars for themselves. The older teenagers who had smartphones for themselves were suddenly beset upon to share the marvels of the night sky.
Cecilia Payne would have been proud indeed of the motley group of astronomers gathered in our driveway. It is marvelous to see how the work of early astronomers & physicists set the base for us to be able to map the skies and predict the movements of stars and planets.
“Oh look!”, said the Big-Dipper-doubter, pointing the phone wildly at the sky, “the moon, the moon!”.
An experienced hand said he had seen the moon before and there was nothing remarkable about it.
“But it is so beautiful!” said another sounding reproachful at the dismissal of the beautiful moon, and I agreed. The moon has exerted her pull over mankind almost since the beginning of time. Even if we do see it everyday, the moon has a poetic beauty all of its own. That night it was looking achingly beautiful.
Maybe it was the effect of the scintillating talk I had the privilege of attending earlier that week.
I have never had the opportunity to listen live to a TED Talk. But that week, I had listened to a very TED-esque talk by Jon Carmichael the cosmic photographer. He shared the beautiful story of how he photographed the full lunar eclipse a year ago with the help of a Southwest crew.
Please listen to the talk on the site if you can.
I was telling the children about the talk, when the husband let out an involuntary yelp and said this time he was fairly sure it was Mars.
One child gazed into the telescope and said, “It looks like a Papad in the sky.”, and we all laughed. (Papad – is a sort of flat, round lentil chip!)
The cosmos has a way of uniting us in the darkest of times. Even during the most inane days, there is always a cosmic show that is ready to enthrall us and fill our souls with enchantment. It is why I was so happy to be standing among the children gazing up at the stars, and soaking in the wonders of the cosmic show above me that day. Even if the children did see a lentil chip in the sky, I hope for some of them at least the magic seed was sown. A seed nurtured by the hopeful innocence of youth, tempered by the wisdom of years, with the potential to mature into a star of their own.