Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

Before You Know It

February 18th, 2011 | Meera

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe before disaster. Everything happens before you know it. This is the gift of light, the laggard.

You may think light speedy, and it is true that there is none to beat it in this universe: no hare, no rocket ship, no Kenyan swift of foot can do it better. But light’s tempo has a number, and by those digits it is bound, the same as any shackled lifer. Jean Valjean had 24601; light 299,792,458. Oh, it is a traveler par excellence. Nigh on three hundred million meters per second is nothing to sneeze at. Traveling, though, takes time. Traveling trails behind transpiring.

Last week, on a mountaintop dripping with stars, I regarded the Hunter as he drew back his arrow for the Hare. This he has done since Homer. Since Hesiod. It might seem he must do it forever; but he may already have dropped his bow. For Betelgeuse, the star in his right shoulder, is old enough that it must soon die—and distant enough that it may have done already, hundreds of years past. If so we are none the wiser. We stand somewhere in the 640 year-long gap of light’s passage, event on one side and understanding on the other.

Before you know it Betelgeuse will blow. Did blow. Will blow. Did blow. I watched the Hunter and his old red shoulder. I wondered at the night sky, so full of Schrodinger’s cats.

Between happening and knowing there is a space—no matter how small. Two mornings later, kneeling over a canyon pool, I saw the Santa Catalinas in still water. Observed the sun moving, ever so slowly, over their graceful bulk. Thought: As with the stars, so with all things.

Since they were only miles away, not light years, the light that carried the mountains’ countenance came to me fast, fast, fast—plummeting out of the sky headlong and caroming off the surface of the pool and into my eager eyes so quick you’d never even know there was a time between. An infinitesimal time. Still, there it was.

Before you know it—but just before—the sun dapples over the Santa Catalinas.

Sabino Canyon morning

Between happening and knowing there is a space—a bit of room to breathe. Before you know it you’re all grown up. Before you know it you’ve fallen in love. Before you know it he’s become someone else. Before you know it, you have too. You’ll see. Just wait a second. Let light catch up.

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.

New Year’s Day Self-Similarity

January 1st, 2010 | Meera

There has always been, for me, something shivery and mysterious about the Book of the Thousand and One Nights. One reason is that although for years it sat quite within reach on my father’s bookshelf, both the Nights and its store of what we so (in)delicately call “adult” material were closed to me as a child: locked tight with a single shake of a maternal head. (Let me tell you that when I read the stories, in direct defiance of that fiat, and discovered that not only is there a lot of sex in them but that the very first tale is about a fart so legendary it reverberates through an entire kingdom for generations, I laughed until I cried. Adult indeed.)

But far more wonderful, what I knew about the comparatively slim volume revealed its position within that most favored of literary genres: the infinite book. That “thousand and one!” How I craved its everlasting promise of still one more night after you thought the final one had come.

One other thing gave the Thousand and One Nights limitless mystery, and that was the fact that it held stories within stories within stories. Scheherazade would begin to tell a tale, and all of a sudden its narrator would begin to tell his own tale, and before you knew it its narrator was holding forth on yet another narrative, and so on and so forth until your head spun with delicious confusion. No matter where you looked, it seemed, there was a tiny reflection of the book as a whole, which in turn contained its own reflection, which contained…and in turn…and in turn… The book of Nights was made of endless versions of itself, writ small (er and smaller and smaller).

As in the Nights, so in Nature. Self-similarity is everywhere. Each stretch of the British coastline, fractal-father Mandelbrot tells us, curves and jags and undulates in such a way as to produce a remarkably faithful scale model (not perfect, but close) of the coastline as a whole, no matter how many times you carve it up into smaller and smaller pieces. Always you will find that each individual part contains within itself a rough unabridged copy of the total sum.

So again with the leaves of a fern, whose fronds divide into fronds that divide into fronds, and with the branching bronchial tubes of the lungs, which fork and fork and fork once more. Raise your head to the skies and there too the part reflects the whole. Galaxies clump into small groups, like little knots of gossiping schoolchildren; those clumps form larger clusters, and those clusters even larger throngs.

(What is it for, all this huddling? Is it a lonely thing, being a galaxy? I can’t imagine it could be, since you yourself are made up of clustered clustered clusters of stars…)

And what does all this have to do with New Year’s Day, my dear dears? Why, only this: When I woke up this morning I resolved to make my own self-similarity. This first day, I decided—itself just one small part of the long annum stretching out before me in all its promise and disappointment—should be a scale model, crafted as best I can, of what I want the year to be like.

Therefore, this is what today contained:

Waking to sunlight through curtains and a cat on my belly.

Cooking, with Ross and for a friend. Eating what I had made. Laughing.

Walking, face tingling in the January (!) cold. Looking. Breathing. Hugging Ross.

Making what I know how to make.

Sitting, just sitting, while music plays. Reading with a cup of coffee by my side.

Finally, perhaps most importantly of all, writing this for both you and myself, with a calm heart and nothing to prove.

Welcome to a new decade, readers-mine. I’m enjoying it so far. I’m imagining, at least for one day, that I know what the future holds. It holds a thousand and one New Year’s Days.