March 30, 2005

The Greatest Show Off Earth



Saturn's peaceful beauty invites the Cassini spacecraft for a closer look.... NASA TV/webcast coverage of Cassini's arrival at Saturn begins June 30, 6:30 pm Pacific time. Check this page frequently for mission updates.
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 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 see with the naked eyes. My eyes. 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 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. 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, that's what makes us who we are -- the smart monkey that figures out how to see for itself, that follows the path that tells us that, if we can only look out far enough and 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? A lot of people like to believe that we'll know after we die, but a lot of other people would rather have the information just a bit sooner.

Tomorrow night, Earth's spacecraft Cassini is going to fly through the rings of Saturn. This is going to be broadcast live on television. It will be a long, slow program. There won't be a lot of drama. The dialogue will be stilted, formal, technocrat. It won't be up for an Emmy. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Pointer: For current broadcast details for both television and web broadcasts plus news and other items concerning Cassini, check this web page at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Posted by Vanderleun at March 30, 2005 1:48 AM | TrackBack
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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.

I had a similar reaction the first time I saw Saturn's rings--a friend had a roof top deck in the middle of Philadelphia, and small telescope from Edmunds. Didn't have any of that GPS stuff, but we found it just the same.


Posted by: Eric Blair at June 30, 2004 8:54 AM


Reading that just warms my heart. Thanks.


Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at June 30, 2004 10:23 AM

Please post what network this will be televised on. You've inspired me.

Posted by: Cathy Eberhardt at June 30, 2004 11:15 AM

It will be on the NASA cable outlet present on most cable hookups as included. If you click on the link in the phrase "Check this page" above you'll go to the web page with current informaton and links.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at June 30, 2004 11:18 AM


Your post about actually SEEING Saturn reminds me of my own stunned first encounter.

Some friends pulled out a cheapie telescope and I aimed it like a bazooka at the Moon and that nearby "star" which I thought/heard/read/other was Venus.

When it came into focus, I saw two, three, four orbs arrayed out from the planet and gasped "Jesus, not's SATURN". Something that I "knew" all about was replaced with a child-like awe of seeing a world bigger than your own town.

I didn't see any rings - this was about ten years ago; I think that Saturn's rings were, at the time, perpendicular to an Earth viewpoint (but then I did mention that it was a CHEAP telescope, didn't I?).

As you said, you can read about it, see beautiful NASA imagery, have an interested layman's grasp of astronomy - but when you actually see something of that magnitude for yourself, WOW.

Thanks for a compelling post,

Posted by: Keith Macdonald at June 30, 2004 3:41 PM

Keith: What you may have seen was Jupiter and the four "Gallilean" moons (for their discoverer).

I remember extremely vividly the first time I saw Saturn with my own eyes on the wobbly back deck of a friend with a cheapie (1996). The feeling was absurd, I thought then ... that such a thrill would attach to such an expectedly mundane event. As a Star Trek child, I grew up thinking I would have a transporter by now ... but that view of Saturn and rings will stay with me to the end.

A couple years ago, I borrowed another friend's telescope to show my daughters the wonders over our heads in the dark, and was able to see both Saturn and rings, and Jupiter and the Gallilean moons. That's another "first" I won't ever forget.

Posted by: kobekko at June 30, 2004 9:48 PM


You know, after I wrote my first post, I thought "... maybe it was Jupiter".

Thanks for the correction - everything else I wrote still holds true (and now I can still look forward to my first Saturn experience).


Posted by: Keith Macdonald at July 1, 2004 9:01 AM

Sorta does make you wonder how they got away with naming such a lousy car after such a heavenly celestial body.

All kidding aside though, I had a view in 1977 through another USAF Airman's Celestron C-8 'scope. He had the analog, motorized base, but locating a given target was all skill and some luck on his part.

But what a view when he did. Humbling, indeed.

Sloop New Dawn
Galveston, TX

Posted by: Jim at July 1, 2004 3:47 PM

Oh c'mon Jim,

I rented a Saturn during an Ohio-Kentucky-Tennessee-W. Virginia vacation and I thought it was great.

Of course, that was compared to an 18 year old Escort left moldering on a Brooklyn street (since upgraded to an '03 Corolla - oh boy!).


Posted by: Keith Macdonald at July 1, 2004 4:24 PM
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