May 15, 2014

The Greatest Show Off Earth

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My up-close and personal relationship with Saturn is brand new. Sure, I'd seen the pictures and the "artist's conceptions" all my life. I'd read the stories, both science and fiction, and I believed. I believed in Saturn. I had faith.

I had faith that Saturn existed and that it had the rings that made it the single most miraculous object in the solar system, save Earth -- which may also be, except for our belief and faith in numbers, the single most miraculous place in the universe.

But my belief in Saturn and its rings was just that, "belief." After all, I had never actually seen Saturn -- only pictures and paintings. Saturn to me was only hearsay. That all changed a month ago thanks a friend with a passion for astronomy and actual possession of a serious telescope, coupled with a moonless night at the edge of the pacific here in Laguna Beach.

With the events of the last year, I've often taken to mouthing a phrase picked up from someone else to give people a snapshot of my current take on our world in 2004. It goes, "I try to become more cynical every month but lately I just can't keep up." It's so arch, so deftly faux-ironic yet yielding a bouquet redolent with a whiff of the flaneur and just a smidgen of edge. It's a fine whine of recent vintage that's just about as toxic to the truth about my inner life as a fresh, chilled pitcher of Jonestown Kool-Aid.

We often take up catch-phrases like the one above and use them as an Etch-A-Sketch display of our souls; our means to signify ourselves to others without really having to engage them. If we do it too much, who we are fades out of sight to others and we are like the sailor on the far horizon flapping out semaphore code about our inner self. Then we become distressed when others only see the code and not the man in full. But it is of our own doing and sometimes we get so far inside the code that we can't step out of it, step closer into the light, stand and unfold ourselves. Sometimes, it takes something the size of a planet to knock us out of orbit and back down to the surface of the planet we inhabit.

I needed a planet, and for my sins, I got one.

My friend and I had had one of those solid guy meals composed of a good wine and a choice of pizza. Then we went outside on the terrace where a shrouded shape stretched up against the backdrop of ocean and night. His house is on the edge of the town overlooking the beach and the sea so it affords, except for the part of the sky taken up by the house, a fair chance of seeing what's up there.

Light pollution is a problem I suppose since we are surrounded by a busy highway and a town whose other houses and street lights stretch up the hills around and behind, but the seeing is better than it would be in, say, my last home in Brooklyn Heights. Besides, it didn't have a serious telescope pointed up at heaven. Telescopes are popular in New York, but they are seldom pointed up.

The evening haze had peeled off the sky and there was no moon. I looked out at the sea as he took the covering off the telescope and went through the rituals required to prepare the instrument. If this had been a decade or so ago, there would have been a long period of lining the telescope up, but this is the computer/GPS age and it was merely a matter of him entering some figures into a keypad and pressing "Enter." The instrument hummed and swung across the sky through a small arc and stopped.

He bent over the eyepiece and moved the focus knob, then he stepped aside and let me take a look.

I pressed my eye against the mounting and saw.... well, I saw a pale, yellow smudge in the center a dark circle. Then I moved my thumb and forefinger just a bit and in an instant the smudge became a sharp, golden shape. And then, because it had rings, what the shape was became known to my mind -- the planet Saturn. Real time. Real sky. Real life.

Saturn seen at last not as a picture taken by someone else and printed in a magazine or a book; an image passed on and fobbed off as the real deal. Not a drawing or a painting, a sketch or a story, but Saturn itself. And not Saturn with a ring around it, but Saturn with multiple rings that you could see with your own eye; Saturn streaked with colored bands of gas that wrapped across the surface of the planet. Saturn seen with the naked eyes. My eyes.

Saturn. Right there in the exact center of the sky.

There's a time when you start to approach the near side of fifty when you begin to suspect, if you've lived a reasonably active life, that you don't have as many "Firsts" in front of you as you have behind. When you pass fifty and close on sixty, you're sure of it. That's probably what compels a lot of people to travel compulsively about the world -- the thought that if you can move around a lot, you can somehow pile more "Firsts" into your experience and somehow extend your "Life List of Things To Do Before...."

This can work, but more often than not you are simply seeing things that are new versions of other things, but not Firsts. Firsts are rare because once you've had them, everything like them that comes along later are simply seconds; sometimes better than the Firsts, but seconds all the same, and you make you peace with that.

First love, first car, first child.... these are the pearls of great price on the string of your life and that's why you remember them and cherish them. And you use them up, one at a time. Although they came in a cascade at the start, they become more rare as the road winds on. When you get one, especially when you don't expect it, it makes you take a break by the side of the road to make sure you remember and value the gift.

The moments after Saturn first swam into focus were like that. Absent repeating some varieties of dubious experience, I'd thought I was immune to actually feeling something intellectual that can only be described as a physical thrill, but I was wrong.

As I gazed on Saturn I felt everything I had ever read, or seen or thought about the planet come racing back out of places in my mind long discarded or left behind with a jolt. The books read in childhood, the films seen, the cornball space operas like "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" or "Space Patrol" that were the most essential part of my childhood's television hours, all the fact and the fantasy, the lectures and the lessons in which Saturn figured came tumbling up out of my memory at a rate of speed I hadn't thought possible. And my body felt as if something had reached effortlessly out across two billion miles and run an electrical charge right down the center of my spine.

I imagine this is what people mean when they talk about a conversion experience.. a sharp, clear moment when faith becomes real, becomes concrete. If your god has become science, there's nothing like a big hit of real science to make you rethink what you think you know about God.

It's easy to say, "Well, of course Saturn was really there. Everyone told you it was and showed you the pictures for decades. Did you think they were kidding you? Did you think it was all some sort of nifty mural painted on a black backdrop and that sooner or later it was all going to be turned around to see that, well, we were just kidding?"

Of course not, but it does remind me that the essence of science, the foundation of all our knowledge that is as sure and certain as we can make it, rests on the simple act of going where we need to go and seeing for ourselves. In "The Waking," poet Theodore Roethke sums up the inner sense of this going with,

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow....
I learn by going where I have to go.

If we can't see for ourselves, we then set to work figuring out how to make instruments and theories and technologies that allow us to, ultimately, just see for ourselves.

In the end, this need, this ceaseless drive, is what makes us who we are -- the smart monkey that figures out how to see for itself, the upright ape made in the image of the inconceivable that follows a solitary path that leads us... where?

I like to think that if we can only look out far enough and look in deep enough, we'll finally see for ourselves the proof of the miracle, and understand that miracle enough to know that its worth hanging around to see more of it unfold, day after day and night after night.

After all, what are we looking for down all the years if not the place when we cease to believe and come to know? Many people like to believe that we'll know after we die, but many others would rather have the information just a bit sooner.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be---
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

-- Robert Frost

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Posted by Vanderleun at May 15, 2014 7:50 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

We can use a telescope to look inside but it's not the kind that whirs and the required adjustments are pretty fine. Short of that, for a "real world" view of the matter, I can recommend a book by physicist Gerald Schroeder called, "The Hidden Face of God." If you don't have a feel for the miraculous after reading that, you might indeed have to wait until the curtain falls.

Posted by: LT at May 15, 2014 9:09 AM

Since you have an artist's impression of Cassini illustrating this piece:

It's often said that one can see something more clearly when seeing it from afar. This was illustrated very strongly by the classic photograph from Apollo 8 of an Earthrise - and even more so by two photos, one from Voyager and one from Cassini, of Earth from billions of miles. I can't say it any better than Sagan did:

"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at May 15, 2014 11:09 AM

I love giving friends and neighbors the experience you described through my telescope. When they tentatively ask "Can you actually see the rings?" I know I have a live one! Sometime I play them along a bit: " Well, some people can...".

The most common first words are "HOLY SHIT"!

Here's a tip: if you have the opportunity to install a permanent concrete pier to put your scope on, do it - it takes observing to a whole new level of ease and rock-solid steady views.

I put a pier right in the middle of a patio, and got extra brownie points for engineering it so when the scope and its mount are taken off, it makes a bodacious central "leg" for a big beautiful wooden outdoor dining table!

Posted by: Ray Van Dune at May 15, 2014 5:03 PM

I agree that the Saturn experience is stunning, but the Jupiter experience is equally so if one involves the Galilean satillites of Jove. The popular astronomy magazines all have a chart that shows the positions of the major moons of the Big Guy, so it is easy to find a time when there will be a "transit" of a large moon across the face of the planet.

A transit is amazing through telescope of about 6" or greater aperture. The large moons show a distinct spherical shape and there is a strong 3D impression of the satellite floating in front of the planet. It's a real thrill to see it for the first time, because nobody expects it.

Then there is the shadow! If you observe near opposition the shadow of the moon will be somewhere on the surface of Jupiter near the satellite itself. This can also be predicted from magazine charts. If the geometry is right, the moon shadow will start across the planetary disc a little while after the moon itself.

This can set up the opportunity for you to transition from a mere "HOLY SHIT" event, to a "Jesus H. Christ!!" level experience, when you ask your friend to tell you what that little black dot on the planetary surface BEHIND the moon might be!

Posted by: Ray Van Dune at May 15, 2014 8:14 PM

Thank you for writing this, it's wonderful! The first time I saw Saturn and Jupiter I felt like this. I really can't think of any other experience as subtle, yet mind-blowing.

I should dust off the old Celestron...

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at May 15, 2014 8:24 PM

Thank you, Gerard for these thoughtful lines. It reminded me of a long ago day, when I was about 10. My Uncle George brought a borrowed telescope home from work and on a delicious warm summer night we set it up out by our little barn in Rector, Pa., complete with two kitchen chairs and a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Wonder ensued. I'm not a huge Walt Whitman fan, but do you recall his small poem "When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer?

When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Posted by: Ralph Kinney Bennett at May 16, 2014 9:22 AM

Lovely, lovely exposition. I was on the launch team that ensured Cassini made its way to the most enigmatic and beautiful representative of our outer system gas giants. If you want an amazing few moments realizing your place in our solar system and universe, do not miss a total solar eclipse. We saw one in 1998 in Aruba, and the moments of pre-totality and totality were absolutely stunning! The shadow bands move at more than Mach 3. The light just before totality is a weird, strange, dim, colorless daylight. The birds head for rest. Then you see it - the planets behind the sun reveal themselves and you suddenly get a real-time three-dimensional glimpse of a two-dimensional map. Do not miss this experience! This glorious spectacle crosses America on August 21, 2017.

Posted by: Rubysue at May 16, 2014 5:30 PM

Here's what up with Saturn, and why you wrote this. You look at Jupiter, it's like looking straight on at a pizza with some flies hanging around it. It fills the scope's eyepiece. And you think "cool, a failed star, nothing but gas, very colorful". Because of it's size and nearness, it's an effortless view. Likewise, Mars is a pepperoni slice, the moon a rock, Venus a white banana.

And then you swap out the eyepiece for the high magnification one, point the scope at Saturn, let the jiggles settle out, get the focus all right, and whoosh! you feel yourself in an instant travel a billion miles across the deeps to visit another world! shining in the far firmament. A 3-d world like no other. Saturn is your first celestial journey. To see Saturn for the first and every time with your own eyes, is to become part of and sense your place in the divine grandeur of the heavens. Really, words fail me at this point.

Posted by: John A. Fleming at May 20, 2014 2:28 AM