I don’t know when I first looked up and saw the stars. I was born in Coney Island, and spent the first few years of my life in the greater metropolitan area. Probably the first rich star field I saw was simulated, projected on the dome of the Vanderbilt Planetarium on the north shore of Long Island. I didn’t believe that simulation. It looked fake and impossible. The sky I knew was hazy and orange with only the brightest of celestial bodies shining through.
It wasn’t the only way in which my childhood perspective was limited and transcribed by simulation. I couldn’t imagine historical events before the 1940s in color. I harbored a strange suspicion that color vision itself was an evolutionary development of the mid-century. Weird, I know. I still can’t watch color footage of World War II without feeling it’s somehow not quite authentic.
Anyway, the simulacrum of stars and planets had me hooked, and I became a space and astronomy nut. I remember staying up late with my mom on the back porch of our house in Williston Park, watching a lunar eclipse. Then, one day, I came home, and my Mom was gone and the car was packed and my Dad said we were going to the mountains. My mom had suffered a nervous breakdown (the first in a string of seven…one for each prominent star in the Pleiades) and my Dad thought it better to get me out of there. It was in Lake Placid that I first saw an unpolluted night sky. And was transformed.
Astronomy has been part of my life for longer than it hasn’t. During high school, I’d host parties for my friends on the tennis court across the street, usually for the Perseids meteor shower in August. I’d show them Jupiter and it’s four largest moons through a terrible old 60mm telescope. One night, while walking my dog Maggie, I saw a meteor streak across the sky, something I’d seen many time before. But instead of fading out, it abruptly changed, went from white streak of light to a blue pinpoint, and changed course. Through the upper atmosphere, and probably very tiny and very hot, it drifted, more slowly now, in a straight line to the ground, disappearing over the horizon of trees. I was stunned and excited. I ran home to tell my father and step-mother, who were watching TV. “That’s nice, dear,” they said. Or something like that. It was hard to communicate what I saw.
I think that’s a general truth. The universe is hard to communicate. It’s hard to make the words, bend such earth-bound meanings to capture things so massive, so far away, so energetic, so hot, so cold. But what a challenge!
I lost astronomy for a few years, delved into politics and international relations. I found it again only as an adult, and it’s added an important force of focus and balance to my life. Now, I’m more forgiving of people and humanity in general, and more hopeful. Less than a century ago, we had no idea we lived in a galaxy, or that there were others. Now, so much more has been revealed. Our perspective is deepening every minute, and the more people understand where they are in the universe, well, the better off we’ll be.