Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Andromeda moment

I have a moment to report. Unlike the bitter-sweet last time, this Andromeda moment is purely sweet.

As you might know, I’m in the process of establishing a community-class astronomical observatory down in the Caribbean. It is to be an observatory to enhance an existing eco-camp program for kids, and get the island public involved in amateur astronomy. So while I’m stateside, I’ve been doing a lot of research, visiting planetariums, observatories, astronomy classes, etc. Tonight I went to Boston University Observatory’s public viewing night. It’s held every Wednesday, clear skies permitting, and I go there just to get a sense for how a public program works. Folks head up to the roof of the science center, where a volunteer astronomer runs three 8” reflector telescopes. On this clear and very cold night, there was a chatty crowd of about 25 people. The volunteer was busy.

Long Exposure Photo: Andrea Baird, BU Parent magazine

One of the scopes was aimed at the Andromeda Galaxy. Through an 8” scope, Andromeda appears like a faint milky sphere. To someone unaware of what they are looking at, it’s decidedly unimpressive. It looks something like this.

After I had taken a peak at Andromeda, I stepped aside just to take in the scene; people huddled around on the cold steel catwalk, the skyline of Boston as backdrop. While I was standing there beside the scope, two women and 4 kids stepped up to have a look. First up was the littlest one. In the darkness, and all bundled up in a snowsuit, scarf, hat, and mittens, I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. All I could tell was that this kid wanted to see! As the child climbed up the little white plastic step stool, I could tell neither he or his mom knew where to put their eye. I stepped in to help.

As I repositioned the step stool, I began telling this kid about the Andromeda Galaxy; that it was a lot like our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and that it was the biggest thing we humans could see from earth. I told him how far away it was and showed him where to put his eye.

That’s when the moment happened.

As he pulled his scarf aside, and leaned forward to look through the eyepiece, a faint white light flooded though the lens and onto his face. Time stopped and the chatter fell silent as I realized that this ancient light had traversed two and a half million years of cold vacuous void, only to land on the warm, wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked, snotty-nosed face of this tiny child. I could feel a lump in my throat as everything I know about the cosmic story - from the big bang, nucleosynthesis, evolution, and the dawn of consciousness - distilled down to this one precious moment. It was clear and vivid. Here was the universe looking at itself in a two-way mirror. Kid and cosmos, saw each other and I heard them say in unison - wow!

I don't know where the kid might take this experience. I like to think he'll develop an appreciation for a universe that's vastly bigger, but at the same time intimately connected with himself. But I do know this; that Andromeda moment confirms that I’m on the right path.

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