by Barry Edelson

Feeling Small

M44, "The Beehive Cluster"


With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.
— James Joyce, Ulysses

Kitt Peak National Observatory sits atop a mountain 7,000 feet above the southern Arizona desert. It offers scientists some of the clearest skies on Earth under which to conduct their research — despite the sprawling plain of Tucson 40 miles to the east (with the world’s most restrictive local ordinances for street lights) and the orange glow of Phoenix 100 miles to the north (a bigger problem for astronomers). For visitors who spend the bulk of their lives in one light-polluted megalopolis or another, Kitt Peak has the most extraordinary view of the heavens that they are likely to experience in the course of a lifetime.

In the time it takes to drive from the valley floor up the 12-mile snaking road to the observatory, the temperature drops about 20 degrees. In mid-February, the nightly observing program begins at 5:00pm, about an hour before sunset, after which the thermometer takes a nosedive. However, no pity need be wasted on those who work at this altitude: the frost-bitten astronomer shivering in his observatory is a relic of another era.
Earth Shadow The Earth's shadow cast on the sky
by the setting sun
Today’s professional stargazers don't actually look at the skies through an eyepiece, but sit at computer screens in centrally heated control rooms with all the comforts of home. One of the mountain's 26 active telescopes, run by a consortium of southeastern American universities, is even operated from thousands of miles away over the Internet.

As the daylight fades, roofs open on the various domes and irregularly shaped buildings so the telescopes can become acclimatized to the frigid night. Apart from unwanted light, heat is the astronomer's worst enemy, as it distorts the mirrors of telescopes and wreaks various kinds of havoc on what surely must be hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of extraordinarily delicate equipment. There isn't a soul to be seen anywhere on the mountain, other than the 50 laypersons here for the evening program, and two expert guides, who have come outside to watch a breathtaking sunset, and for an orientation on the various kinds of research done by the many government agencies and universities that have a stake in one or more of the mountain's facilities. We are assured that any number of researchers are indeed inside almost all of the two-dozen structures, which seem to have sprouted from the jagged ridges and folds of the observatory grounds. We are given a close-up view inside a remote-controlled observatory, and watch as the dome swivels with the sound of a giant garage-door opener, and as the ungainly telescope, mounted on a massive pier that is anchored directly into the mountain, maneuvers itself into position without the intervention of anyone present. Two small, older domes that are no longer used for astronomical research are maintained by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory expressly for the nightly observation program open to the public. At this time of day, just minutes before dark, the mountain looks like a ragged circle of oversized robots assembling for their nightly conclave.

In the visitor center, our guide gives us a very informative and highly entertaining lesson in how to use binoculars and a planisphere to locate the stars in the northern hemisphere. Then we head back outside into the now black night. If you have never traveled in a less developed part of the world where outdoor electric lighting does not exist, or never found yourself on a country road at some ungodly hour, it is a safe bet that you have never experienced darkness as complete as the darkness of Kitt Peak's working night. Lights of all kinds are strictly forbidden: no flashlights, cameras, cellphones or headlights, not even a match may be lit. We are each given a tiny red light the size of a nail clipper that is nearly useless for navigating in the pitch black; the only safe way to walk around is to allow the eyes to adjust to the starlight. The moon is visible but only as a thin, waxing crescent on this particular date. This is a good thing: astronomers apparently hate the moon, and generally take leave from the mountain when it's full. The problem is the same as Phoenix: too much light.
Sunset Sunset over the Arizona desert
While a bright moon would have made it easier to walk around the observatory grounds, it would have made it impossible to see many of the less brilliant objects in the night sky, and also made it difficult to adjust one's eyes to the darkness and derive the full benefit of a particularly clear and lustrous evening. We are taught that when an experienced stargazer wants to look at the moon, he makes it the last task of the evening, so as not to waste his eyes' adjustment to the dark.

The first time we tilt our heads and look up we are literally stopped in our tracks at the sight of the crowded sky. We had expected something like this, but are frankly unprepared for the sheer volume and density of the stars visible to the naked eye in the high, thin desert air. It is easy to understand why some of the ancients likened the dome of the night sky to a crystal sphere, on which all of the heavenly bodies were suspended like jewels upon a black velvet plain. We struggle with our binoculars for a while, and attempt to match the images on our star charts to the spectacular array above our heads, clumsily wielding our puny red lights. But after a while most of us give up and just allow ourselves to be carried away on the guide's animated and unabashedly joyful descriptions of the distant sights of the universe around us: Orion’s belt; Sirius, the brightest star, Betelgeuse and Polaris, the north star, not very bright but always a fixed point in our heavens; the graceful cluster of the Pleiades; the pale white streak that we call the Milky Way, the illumination of 100 billion stars in the dense center of our galaxy; and Andromeda, the only object outside our own galaxy that is visible to the naked eye, a world as complex and vast as the Milky Way itself.

In smaller groups, we are escorted to the two small observatories to view some objects beyond the reach of our eyes and binoculars. "Little" 16- and 20-inch reflecting telescopes bring us astounding images of the Orion nebula, illuminated by the gaseous debris from which new stars are born; the brilliant tableau of the cluster known as M46, filling the field of view with young stars and the faint glow of a single dying star nearly hidden among them; the surface of Mars and its polar ice cap;
Saturn Saturn as photographed by
the Hubbell Telescope
and perhaps the most awe-inspiring sight of all: Saturn with its rings just slightly on edge, two of its far-flung moons in the outer reaches of its gravitational embrace — far clearer than Galileo could see them when he ignited a scientific revolution 400 years ago.

Paradoxically, while this view of the stars makes our everyday cares seem even more absurd than we already knew they were, it also somehow makes us feel more connected to the impossibly distant universe of which we generally do not remember we are a part. It's not as though we feel that we can reach out and touch the heavens, or any such sentimental notion; the cosmos seem even more vast and forbidding than we had even imagined. But the unavoidable truth of our remoteness brings the very existence of life on Earth into sharper relief: it is something that would be utterly unimaginable if our own lives were not testimony to its reality.

Only a few days before our visit to Kitt Peak, NASA observed the 20th anniversary of the most distant photograph of the Earth: the famous "pale blue dot" image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it reached the edge of the solar system in 1990. Against a massive field of empty space, and along the edge of a very faint curve of sunlight, lies a lonely speck that is our Earth. How extraordinary that space is so crowded — stars, planets, comets, asteroids, dust and so many other kinds of objects and matter — and still we could appear so completely alone. Carl Sagan, one of the scientists who urged the taking of the picture (some at NASA were afraid that aiming the camera in the direction of the sun would destroy it), said of it in a much-quoted speech:

Look again at 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.

If you can’t get to Kitt Peak or someplace like it, visit the website of the Hayden Planetarium, whose astronomers have created the Digital Universe Atlas containing all the known objects in the universe. There is an astonishing video, "The Known Universe", by which one can "travel", in about six and half minutes, from the Earth to the outer edge of the universe and back again. (There is also a software program available for download for those who wish to "explore" the universe on their own.) The return trip is even more extraordinary than the outbound journey: one cannot help but realize that, if we didn’t know where our infinitesimally tiny planet was, it would be absolutely impossible to find it. The film also happens to be a beautifully rendered representation of a thought experiment described, some years ago, in the tenth dialogue of "Cruel Jokes", and which came flooding back to mind in the freezing observatory on Kitt Peak.

When it is time to leave, all of the evening's guests must depart at the same time so as not to disturb the delicate observations being made in the buildings all around us. As we stumble to find our cars in the lightless parking lot, one of the guides who is accustomed to driving in the dark organizes a procession with his van in the lead: no headlights. At a snail's pace, we follow one another's red tail lights a mile or two down the twisting two-lane access road, until we are far enough away not to cast any unwanted glare in the direction of the observatories.

Back on the flat desert plain, we turn east on Highway 86, which cuts a straight line through the Tohono O'odham reservation that surrounds Kitt Peak. The road brings us back to terrestrial concerns that until a few minutes ago were all but forgotten in the remoteness of space: the border patrol checkpoint on the lookout for illegal aliens; the unbroken trail of shattered beer bottles running mile after mile along the shoulders of the highway; the lights of Tucson coming ever closer in the enveloping night. As the desert recedes, we emerge from our night wanderings, in the universe which is also our home, and return to the willful act of forgetting that constitutes our lives.

February 19, 2010

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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.