When the Clouds Cover the Stars
When the clouds cover the stars, the astronomers come indoors. The guitars are removed from their cases and laptop lids are closed. We gathered to share the songs which have been sung for five decades, since the revolution that temporarily gave comfort to those who were different from the rest. It was a time to be accepted. Here too everyone is accepted, no matter how awkward, no matter how socially odd in the real world. Here, everyone has a talent, a gift, a shared passion to teach and to learn.

Wendee and two others transition to a semi-private discussion of the politics of government, cuts in education, and how amateur astronomy remains a bridge for children, from raw passion for learning to applied sciences when the school systems fail again and again. Federal mandates curb creativity and threaten the individuality and creativity of otherwise capable teachers.

Steve, Bob, and Brad sit in the same order at the same table at each meal, and this night as well. Each is a bit cantankerous, sarcastic, and yet more generous with their time in three days and nights than some parents are in a life time with their children. They relish the opportunity to help someone, like me, snap my very first photograph of a distant planet, nebulae, or cluster of stars.

I pull up a backward facing chair and lean onto the table to their front, elbows and shoulder braced for what I know will be a fight.

I say, “So, tomorrow, I would like to interview the three of you, at the same time.”

Brad is quick to respond, “Yeah? When would that be?”

Bob adds, “I am not certain we are worthy of an interview.”

Steve stares at me for a while before saying, “I’m not available. Very busy, you know.”

Brad quips, “Yeah, you gotta talk to Steve’s agent.”

Bob again, “So why do you think we’re worth interviewing?”

Without hesitation I respond to all three, “No, not really. Individually you are boring, not worth my time. But together you’re entertaining. I need comic relief in my documentary.” We all break character and laugh. I conclude, “Allow me to rephrase: I am going to interview the three of you so all you have to do is pick the time. No option. Got it?”

Steve comes back, smiling, “Hey! He is catching on pretty quick. He’s gonna be one of us pretty soon!” They all laughed and agreed to 1:00 pm the next day.

Stories Unfold
My interviews have gone well. Good content, great stories. David tells of his phone call with a professional astronomer who confirmed his discovery of Shoemaker-Levy 9, the famous comet that crashed into the atmosphere of Jupiter. I am captivated, as though it was happening all over again.

I recall many years ago when David came to speak to the Phoenix Astronomical Society for which I served as President at that time. He had made his discovery just a few days prior to our club meeting at which David was speaking. He entered the room and there was silence. David cleared his throat, looked around the room, cleared his throat again and said, “As you may have guessed, there is going to be a change of subject for my presentation for the evening.”

David wears a light blue T-shirt which reads, “Don’t blame me! I voted for Pluto!” The value of this otherwise comical tribute to Clyde Tombaugh is given full weight when one considers that David wrote a biography of Clyde’s life in the ’90s, a copy of which remains on my bookshelf.

A New Adventure Every Night
It’s 12:30 am and a half dozen remain in the dining hall, watching the live Doplar radar and Star Trek out-takes on YouTube, hoping for a break in the clouds. Staying up till 1:00 am is consider the bare minimum, three to four the norm. Sleep ’till 10:15 the next morning and eat breakfast at 10:30.

Every night is an adventure, an exploration of some one hundred billion stars, nebulae, gaseous birthing chambers for the next generation of solar engines, pulsars, super novae, and black holes. Even with an eight inch diameter telescope, one that can be carried underarm, a ten minute exposure illuminates a half dozen other galaxies with spiral arms, hot, glowing centers, tilted and thrown about in what appears to be, from our point of view, a chaotic array of tossed white dishes in a black, spotted basin.

The mind has no choice but to open when one looks through a telescope. It is nearly impossible to walk away from a night of observing and return unaffected to that other world of political battles, economic downturns, looting, warfare, and starvation. The contrast is tremendous. I am compelled to ask of the congressmen who squabble over the appropriation of dollars, of religious leaders who proclaim holy wars to cleanse the world of unbelievers, and of military generals who order their soldiers to use rape as a weapon against the opposing tribe, even if knowingly naive, “Look up! Have you ever seen something so beautiful?”

When viewing an impressive photo of the Andromeda galaxy, the closest neighbor to our own, I considered that our human race could perhaps have enjoyed a very different history if only we could see the outstretched arms and rich, dynamic body of another galaxy with our naked eye. It is, after all, six times larger than the moon in the night sky.

Andromeda’s Claim
The sun, moon, and planets are our celestial partners, tightly coupled on the same, nearly level playing field. They move and interact with us directly. We have over time attributed the planets with the power of gods, suggesting that their color and motion in the sky is that of emotion expressed at how we manage our lives. But to consider that the lives and deaths of creatures whose very bodies are but an infinitesimal fraction of the mass of the soil on which they walk, somehow please or displease a power so great that it created hundreds of millions of planets in each of a hundred billion galaxies seems dreadfully egocentric and selfishly unaware.

If we could see the Andromeda galaxy overhead, perhaps we would recognize that we were never alone, and did not need to invent gods to micromanage our affairs. Perhaps we would have understood long ago that the heavens are unaware of what we say, with whom we share our bed, or whether we live clothed or bare. We are an incredible aggregation of self-organized matter, a moment of entropy in reverse. We are the heavy stuff of long ago dead stars, not the finger puppet of something greater or something less.

Six billion humans, each the center of his or her own universe … or a universe which likely harbors far more than six billion planets capable of life, each unique to all the rest.

If we could see the Andromeda galaxy overhead, perhaps then we could recognize the fallacy of believing that our lives are worth destroying in order to gain what we do not already have, when in fact we are simple travelers on an interstellar ship, spinning at 1600 kilometers per hour, orbiting our local star at more than one hundred times this velocity, racing toward the star Vega at 70,000 kilometers per hour.

With resources limited and running low, the only way we will ever arrive to where it is we want to go is to give of ourselves without concern for what remains to call our own. If only we could see the Andromeda galaxy overhead, perhaps its light would remind us that we are not alone.

© Kai Staats 2011