Friday, January 05, 2007

Saturn and Titan, And The Pleiades

In my life it’s not often that I have an interesting conversation with a beautiful woman and then forget the woman’s name. In fact, after these last few months of rummaging through my memories for this blog I can only think of two examples. Today’s post is one of them.

This conversation occurred late one summer night in Evanston, Illinois, at an old astronomical observatory on the fringe of the Northwestern University campus. The observatory contained only one telescope, a very old refractor with an objective lens that was eight or ten inches wide. That’s pretty large by amateur standards but pretty modest compared to modern research reflectors. In fact, the telescope and mount were so old that the university didn’t use it at all for astronomy. However, because the dome and long telescope were so picturesque, so archetypal of how the general public pictured astronomy, the university kept the observatory in repair just for public relations events like community out-reach programs and fund raising parties.

One Saturday evening after a fund-raising party, when everyone had left, a beautiful grad student in the university’s astronomy program and I were scheduled to shut-down the equipment and close-up the dome for the night. (It would be a grad student whose name I forget. Sorry.) But since we had the observatory to ourselves we decided to stick around a few hours because just after midnight Saturn would be rising in the east, in Taurus, and that meant we could get a good view of both the planet Saturn and the open star cluster the Pleiades.

We weren’t disappointed. Skies around Chicago are never great, but on cool nights sometimes the sights over the dark expanse of Lake Michigan can be beautiful. They were that night. We used a low-power eyepiece to get the richest field of view from the long focal length refractor. Saturn was a shimmering oblong, its round rings oval in perspective and sharp against the cloud bands of the planet which were all soft-edge bands of ochres and siennas and venetian reds. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon—larger than the planet Mercury or the former planet Pluto—was a brilliant point of white light like a diamond set next to a magical topaz stone, both glittering against a pure black background. The Pleiades were like a scattering of sparkling diamonds against the same pure black background, but the Pleiades also displayed just a hint of white nebulosity, like a magical mist barely visible in the glare of the stars. The stars and mist itself glowed with, again just a hint, of the purest blue light imaginable, the radiant light from the intense young stars.

“This is really the one thing about astronomy that bothers me,” I said.

The beautiful grad student and I shifted places on the scaffold where we stood to bring our eyes level with the telescope’s eyepiece. She looked at Saturn. “What bothers you?” she asked.

“Whenever the monthly magazines or pop books publish pictures of stuff like this,” I said, “the pictures are always images from space probes, or composites or really long time exposures that are certainly beautiful but beautiful in a completely different way from what you see when you actually look through a telescope.”

The grad student shrugged. “How many people actually look through telescopes?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “when people do, most people are almost always disappointed. Because as beautiful as the view might be it is never the wildly colorful and wildly detailed kind of thing they see in pictures.”

The grad student shifted to side to let me look. She shrugged. “That’s true, but I don’t see that any harm is done. People who can respond to real beauty will still respond to the beauty they see when they look through a telescope even if it’s different from what they expected. And regular folks who might be disappointed will still get their awe and wonder from the pretty photographs. I mean, science is about public relations, too. We need people to pay taxes to support the big projects. The flashy photographs sell to the general public.”

“Yeah,” I said, sighing at the real beauty of Saturn. “But it’s always seemed to me that we could try to simply communicate, in some way, the real views, the amazingly subtle colors and glows and shapes.”

“Subtlety doesn’t grab people,” the grad student said.

“You and I are standing here, aren’t we?”

“Do you think we’re normal?”

I looked at her, then shifted to one side to let her return to the eyepiece. “What about when all the pop magazines printed those surface pictures of Venus,” I asked. “Those surface shots where the aspect ratio was all skewed so that the reasonably flat surface of the planet looked like it was all dramatic mountains and valleys?”

Looking through the telescope, the beautiful grad student frowned. “Well, yeah, if I were running the magazines I wouldn’t have printed those pictures. But the principle is the same. The people in the know ignore stuff like that. But the general public thinks it’s exciting. Nobody gets hurt. And maybe people feel a little better about paying their taxes looking at cool pictures.”

I kissed her cheek. She looked away from the scope and looked at me. “What was that for?”

“You wouldn’t have run the pictures. You know what I’m talking about. You’re just being all cynical and modern.”

She laughed. “It’s a cynical and modern world.”

“Right,” I said. “That’s why we’re standing here with goose-bumps.”

“We’re not the world,” she said.

I’ve always wondered about that. I still do.

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