Jul 8, 2007

What Else Could I Have Been, an Astronomer?


My parents never got involved in my schooling. But when I graduated valedictorian from high school, Dad tried to make up for lost time and threw in some oblique references to my future.

Dad: There are a lot of great jobs in engineering.
Susan: I hate engineering.
Dad: Well you got an A in physics.
Susan: (sarcastic) Dad, I got an A in everything. I have a 4.0 GPA.
Dad: (critical) Why do you want to go into comedy?
Susan: I like writing, I like Saturday Night Live.
Dad: Well I like Laurel and Hardy, but you don’t see me throwing pianos out the window for a living.

Well no, he didn’t really say that. He just sighed derisively, and that ended our conversation about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Why didn’t he just speak plainly: “Here’s the deal with the arts. It’s really tough.” Even if he had, I doubt I would have listened. At 45 I still have not been able to resign to a life of comfort, working as a legal secretary or teaching high school English.

However, I have thought about what I would have done. The only other thing that gripped me was astronomy. Yeah, physics. The thing I rolled my eyes at when my father suggested it.

Growing up, we had a small telescope that only got up to 60 power. But with it we could point it at the moon and see the craters and valleys. We aimed it at Saturn and saw the rings. And Jupiter showed a few of its larger moons. To me, the planets in the night sky, the constellation of stars, the way early man tried to interpret them, these were wondrous things.

I remember my father explaining light years to me, and how the stars we were seeing might already be extinct.
Dad: Light travels at a certain speed, see? The light you're looking at took that many millions of years for the light to leave the star there, and get to your eye here, now.
Susie: Oh! Like how God is on the other side of the universe, and he traveled all this way to come to us in Jesus?
Dad: Yeah, whatever.
My father wasn’t into theology.

One of the greatest mutinies against atheism is the nightly view of the sky. The order and beauty and grandeur of it all make us ants in comparison.

Larry took me to the Griffith Observatory for my birthday. I went back two weeks ago with my mother and niece. See the show in the planetarium and you'll know what it means to feel infinitely worthless and small. And yet all the more loved by the infinite creator.

But I could never be an astronomer. I hate math.

In June of 2001, Time Magazine’s cover article was “How The Universe Will End.” I tried to read it but got tripped up, trying to understand how astronomers and astrophysicists calculated the size of the universe, in what direction it is expanding and at what rate. How fast it used to expand. How could they know that if they only have been able to calculate this stuff over the past 60 to 100 years? And what about dark matter and quarks and string theory?

My friend Art said he was reading about string theory. Scientists don’t really know what it is. Further discoveries have come along to contradict string theory. And that’s when the astronomers and physicists admit they’re just trying to figure it out.

I heard physicist John Polkinghorne speak at a seminar in New York, and later heard him on Speaking OF Faith. He helped formulate the ideas about Quarks. He’s also an Anglican theologian and was knighted by the queen. In other words, smart guy who’s found room for both God and evolution and science. I’ve also listened to Francis Collins who helped map the human genome. Another man of faith, and science.

Yeah, if I’d been smart enough to do complex math, and hadn’t been interested in the arts, maybe I would have gone that way. But maybe they’re interconnected: astronomy, arts and theology.

A few weeks ago I came across the US Geological Survey and its Earth Now satellite imagery. You can watch the images from a satellite unfold like a ticker tape. Last night I watched the satellite crawl from the Northwest Territories all the way past the fires along highway 395. It was mesmerizing. Okay, so I’m easily amused.

NASA’s got some amazing pictures on its website. Here’s an image of what they call the North Atlantic Bloom.

Reminiscent of the distinctive swirls in a Van Gogh painting, millions of microscopic plants color the waters of the North Atlantic with strokes of blue, turquoise, green, and brown. Fed by nutrients that have built up during the winter and early summer, the cool waters of the North Atlantic come alive every year with a vivid display of color.

Or the image of the River Thames as it empties into the north sea.

Maybe there is a link between science and art. Polkinghorne said that when physicists figure out a proof, when they’ve finally got the right answer, they say it’s a “beautiful” equation. That the rightness, the order of it is a thing of beauty. Cosmos and cosmetics come from the same root word. Order. There is beauty in order. And for me it’s just another sign of the wonder and weight of God.

I keep telling Larry that one weekend I want to drive way out to the desert on a new moon. Look up at the sky with no light pollution. Just to see the stars.

The Perseus meteor shower is coming in mid-August. Maybe that’ll be our weekend getaway. And I'll bring a copy of the 8th Psalm, that brings together science and art and theology.


O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!
Your glory is higher than the heavens.
You have taught children and infants to tell of your strength
Silencing your enemies and all who oppose you.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
What are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Yet you made them only a little lower than God
And crowned them with glory and honor.

1 comment:

Ted and Lori said...

Ted laughs at me because I went to "space camp" (Student Space Station) in the 8th grade and was even M.D.: Mission Director. It was a pivotal moment in my upbringing. Then in college I took Earth and Space science to avoid Chemistry and ended up writing poems about the Big Bang theory, one of which got published in our college literary journal. So...I get the interest in spaciness.

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