Seeing and Believing

November 10th, 2010 | Meera

A few weeks ago I climbed into a metal dome perched on the roof of the University of Chicago’s Ryerson Physical Laboratory building, straightened my spine and stood up slightly on my toes to reach the tilted eyepiece of a stately and enormous refractor telescope, placed one wide-open eye against a small, bright window of glass, and believed in the moon for the first time.

It was the night before the full moon, and the planet’s most faithful companion was big and bold and beautiful, waxing so gibbous it seemed to strain against its own edges. At that particular point in the moon’s orbit, solar light was shining almost directly at that portion of its countenance that faces the earth, making the whole of its central surface appear perfectly illuminated and unwrinkled—as flawless and white as the petal of a Madonna lily, if a Madonna lily happened to be lit by the burning light of a star. But at the moon’s outermost contours, where it curved away the most from the sun’s rays, light struck its surface at oblique angles—creating sharp shadows and throwing the topography of the moon into high relief. Here it was ragged with dark tears and cavities, war-wounds from billions of years of asteroid and comet collisions: an old fool wearing his heart on his sleeve.

I put one hand out to the wall of the dome, steadying myself against the physically destabilizing force of true awe, and stared. It was astonishing how clearly I could pick out along the edges of the moon the very same craters and mountains that are visible on photographs of the lunar surface. After some time, the earth had drifted far enough along its own orbit (taking the telescope and me with it) that all that was left in the eyepiece was the blackness of space. And the hard, rocky, three-dimensional physicality of the moon—which had until a minute ago been something frankly close to myth in my mind, though I hadn’t realized it—was newly real.

I was reminded, as I thought about the gap between accepting the perfect, scientific truth of a phenomenon, and actually collecting it into the space of one’s personal convictions, of the wisdom of a certain very big, very friendly giant:

“But because of these jumpsquiffling ears of mine,” the BFG said, “I is not only able to hear the music that dreams is making but I is understanding it also.”

“What do you mean understanding it?” Sophie said.

“I can read it,” the BFG said. “It talks to me. It is like a langwitch.”

“I find that just a little hard to believe,” Sophie said.

“I’ll bet you is also finding it hard to believe in quogwinkles,” the BFG said, “and how they is visiting us from the stars.”

“Of course I don’t believe that,” Sophie said.

The BFG regarded her gravely with those huge eyes of his. “I hope you will forgive me,” he said, “if I tell you that human beans is thinking they is very clever, but they is not. They is nearly all of them notmuchers and squeakpips.”

“I beg your pardon,” Sophie said.

“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

Well. This notmucher, this squeakpip, this human bean who does, still, have a hard time believing in anything unless I is actually seeing it right in front of my own schnozzle, is writing tonight as a rather shy new member of the Ryerson Astronomical Society—which was kind enough to welcome me into its fold despite the fact that I’m not only a notmucher but a notstudent.

I haven’t written about astronomy very often here, but I’m making this post partly as a promise that that will start to change. Not least because I expect that as I go along, getting to know that lovely, somewhat finicky telescope I’m lucky enough to have ten minutes away from my home, I shall very soon find myself in believing in a great many more things than that one crazy, beautiful satellite we call our own.

Waxing Gibbous

Thanks for the incredible photo above go to the talented Philip Chee.

3 Responses to “Seeing and Believing”

  1. Len says:

    You’re not a notmucher. You’re one of the few people I actually slow down to read. Lovely post.

  2. “…an old fool wearing his heart on his sleeve.”

    I love that, and the entire post. It reminded me of the night, way back in 1984, when I stood on the front lawn with my young nephew and we took turns peering through the eyepiece of my tiny telescope. We were searching for Saturn. When we finally found it — blurry, smudgy, but definitely Saturn — we jumped around and whooped as though we’d discovered the thing. Beautiful photographs are great, but as you expressed so beautifully, seeing is believing.

    Thank you, Meera. I look forward to more of your astronomical explorations.