I am in my room at the Jacaranda Guest House, on the South African Astronomical Observatory campus, at the base of Table Mountain, Cape Town. Outside my bedroom, the storm is intensifying again as it has come and gone all day. The window panes of this more than one hundred year old house rattle with the buffeting of the wind. The winter rains have come to Cape Town and it is time for me to depart.
I have found here an unexpected sense of community, a place where scientists from around the world come together to study the universe, to gain an understanding of where we came from and where we are going to. At the same time, these scientists make time to give back to their local community through an active outreach program, sharing their passion for astronomy with school-age children throughout the country.
Therein lies the magic of astronomy, the oldest of sciences which continues to engage the imagination. When we look to the night sky overhead, we see not just points of light but distant worlds which may be vastly different from our own or similar in their capacity to harbor life on both sea and land.
We see not just a handful, but hundreds of billions of galaxies each of which contains hundreds of millions of stars, the majority of which we believe have planets. Our dreams of what may be are overwhelmed for the numbers are greater than anything we use in our daily life.
If I were to attempt to count the impact of precipitation on the tin roof in the midst of this storm, and then the number of molecules in each drop of rain and the number of atoms, protons, and quarks of which they are composed, I may run the risk of losing enjoyment of the winter storm.
Yet this is what astronomy enables: a study of the inner workings of stars which takes us directly to the fundamental building blocks of matter and the formation of life itself while invoking a view of the immense scale of all that we see, both with the naked eye and through the increasingly capable instruments we employ.
Astronomy invokes astronomical numbers which challenge the best of mathematicians, and yet the theories have a means of reaching non-mathematicians with intrigue for the smallest of scales and majesty of distant, unreachable places.
I prepare myself to leave this place and know it will be missed. No where else do daily conversations range from the recovery of a country mired in a terribly complex socio-economic disparity to the theories which enable life to exist on the vast number of exo-planets, more of which are discovered each year.
No where else is my passion for telling the stories of the human condition interwoven with my craving for knowledge about the underpinnings of the rapidly expanding universe.