About twenty years ago I was granted an old boyhood wish when my father-in-law, purging his closet, offered me his Astroscan telescope. It was manufactured by the Edmund Scientific Company, and as a boy in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I used to covet their catalog. Although their primary focus was all things optical, they also offered such irresistible nerd-bait as parabolic spy microphones, gyroscopes, solar cigarette lighters, black lights, one-way mirrors, and surplus gear from WW II. The Astroscan quickly became one of Edmund’s iconic products. It’s a stubby, fat little thing, a shiny red plastic reflector scope with a simple ball-in-socket design. The spherical base at the bottom of the tube freely swivels in an aluminum cradle. It was designed for portability — sling it over your back, or toss it in the backseat of your car, plop the base down on any surface, and you’re in business.
The gift of the telescope coincided with an unusual run of astronomical events that I can only describe as awe-inspiring. For several years, I had the good fortune to see the magic of the Northern Lights on quite a few occasions. First, while on a canoe trip in Northern Maine. Then, a few years later, on many bitterly cold winter nights in northern Minnesota. Shortly after that, returning home to eastern Connecticut, there were two spectacular comets that appeared in the sky within a year of each other: Hyakutake in the early spring of 1996, and Hale-Bopp one year later. Both comets were amazing sights, the first I had ever seen. Hyakutake had an extremely long tail, was a greenish blue color, and seemed so close overhead that you could reach up and touch it. I would stare at it from our rural backyard until my neck hurt or I became too cold. When Hale-Bopp appeared, it was so bright that I could see it from the office tower where I was working in New York City. Hale-Bopp presented the classic comet shape: like the star of Bethlehem often depicted hovering over Christmas creches. A bright star with a horse-hair tail of light flaring backward.
I am a superstitious person by nature, so naturally like my great ignorant ancestors I attached some unfounded significance to these celestial events. Our daughter had recently been born. Surely the arrival of comets and Northern Lights carried a special message. I wisely kept these thoughts to myself, but by this time I was an avid sky watcher. Day or night, I was always looking up, searching for portents. I used my Astroscan a lot. I subscribed to Sky and Telescope Magazine. This was in the mid-nineties, well before magazines had migrated online, and each month I looked forward to the fold-out sky chart with its map of the heavens. The map, or chart, is a large circular depiction of the entire overhead sky presented as if there were an unobstructed 360 degree view of the horizon. The planets and constellations are represented there for that month, with instructions for adjusting the chart to one’s particular longitude and latitude and time zone. Also depicted on the chart would be some of the more notable Messier objects, which are bright objects in the sky like galaxies and star clusters. The Andromeda Galaxy, for example. Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of the chart, then and now, is the running border around the edge, representing the actual horizon. Just as the chart of the sky is drawn with geometrical precision, designed to guide the observer to their chosen destination, the border, representing Earth, is a running silhouette of tiny trees, fences, a farmhouse, a car. A small city. And, almost always, a church. These graphic devices are common to all charts, and I seem to remember them from childhood school trips to the Hayden Planetarium. They are often drawn with a bit of whimsy, proportions skewed, and of course, they also represent a sort of white American middle class wrong end of the telescope view of the World. In other words, they seem designed to ground the viewer, as if confronting the enormity of the heavens might overwhelm the lay person. Certainly, as a child, craning my neck back on my first visit to the Hayden, I was spellbound when the dome of the sky darkened from twilight to night, and transformed into the night sky, rotating slowly at first, then faster. The moon rose and set. Planets too. Comets flew by. And in the center of it all, that dark machine, conjured up in the middle of the room like some robotic insect, slowly twisting, servos spinning, whirring — here was all of science at once served on a plate. It didn’t occur to me then, but now I think they knew what they were doing, those clever bastards, putting that little church there on the horizon. A subtle bit of deflection. Country Comfort. Lest anyone dare accuse them of suggesting anyone but the Almighty was responsible for this amazing show.
That very first planetarium experience really hooked me. But space and the stars were in the air then. The Apollo missions were in full swing. I assembled a plastic model of the lunar lander. Star Trek was on TV. One day, shortly before that first epochal moon landing, a surveying team was working on our street, and they let me look at the moon through their transit scope. I can still remember the moment, as I can remember the first time I saw the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. I am unable to explain the powerful, magical connection that happens whenever I look at a planet through a scope — as opposed to with the naked eye — but it is as though a taut cord is strung between myself and the object in the eyepiece.
My mother is not interested in astronomy, but she has always been and remains to this day at the age of 77, an absolute nut for sunrises, sunsets, and moonrises. Whenever we went on vacation to the shore in New Jersey, Cape Cod, Maine, or Florida, we would be roused from sleep in the pre-dawn darkness to pile into her car with blankets and pillows and drive to the nearest beach or bluff to see the sunrise. As often as not, the horizon was so overcast and cloudy, that the sun would rise behind the clouds and we would be watching and waiting long after the sun had actually risen. Since my Mom relied more on instinct rather than hard data, she seldom consulted a newspaper or Farmer’s Almanac. I hate to think about how many mornings we sat huddled on cold beaches, thinking the break of dawn was lasting an unusually long time. Some family secrets are very hard to confess.
When Sky and Telescope published the first Hubble Telescope photographs of distant galaxies, peering far back in time, I was mesmerized. Becoming mesmerized in one’s thirties is far more challenging than at the tender age of 12. I think if we stopped at the Hubble, we’d be much better off. No smartphones, Facebook, or Twitter. Then we could just live out our lives being awestruck instead of depressed. This is not so facetious as it sounds. The explosion of electromagnetic radio noise is making it nearly impossible for radio telescopes to operate anymore. As cities and suburbs expand around the globe, light pollution obscures the stars. And our growing addiction to screens and apps is pulling us away from the natural world toward a world of similitude.
I kept up my Sky and Telescope subscription for several starstruck years, until one fateful day when I reached into our large red metal mailbox and withdrew an issue with a cover story about “The Future of the Universe.” This was kind of like when TV Guide ran a feature about the end of the Season of Dallas, only the TV Guide seldom gave you a horrible pit in your stomach. That S&T issue contained a fold-out spread with a timeline depicting how all the stars in the Universe would eventually burn out, and the entire Universe would become dark and cold. And then there would be nothing.
For crying out loud. What kind of editor runs a feature like that? Who cares if it is a billion, gazillion years in the future? Did they have an editor’s meeting about that month’s issue, and decide they had been running too many awe-inspiring stories, and needed to bring people down to earth a bit? Or were they getting annoyed by too many amateurs getting into the astronomy game, and figured this would really cull the herd? I pretty much decided there was no point in even attempting to write my novel right then and there. Sure, it might be read for awhile, but eventually — everything, — everything that has ever been done and ever will be done — is for naught.
I never renewed my subscription. And you know, it wasn’t too many years after this that the online porn industry exploded. Someone should really look into this connection. Meanwhile, I am still looking up. I’ll enjoy the sights while they last.
© 2018 James Brunel