The Starry Messengers

I have this on-again, off-again relationship with Audible, where they hook me in with a special deal (“99 cents a month for 2 months!”) and then I end up paying for an extra month because I can’t decide how to use my credits. I add ten books to my wish list and agonize over which to buy and keep putting it off until this month’s charge date is coming up and I must choose NOW.

I could maybe save myself some trouble by looking at my purchase history–Room, The Age of Entanglement, All the Light We Cannot See, The Story of Lucy Gault, The Professor and the Madman–so, two basic categories: 1) contemporary literary(ish) fiction, and 2) history, bonus points if it’s science related.

Today, science and history and Dava Sobel won, and I’ve got her book on Copernicus waiting for me as a post-exam treat. And it got me thinking: when did my obsession with scientific revolutions and astronomy even start?

Then I remembered: Tycho Brahe.

[Hark, a Vagrant!]

Yes. It all started with Tycho, and the Honors science course. We read a lot of primary texts, and somewhere in there were random selections from Tycho Brahe’s personal papers. He wrote a description of himself (in the third person) comparing himself to a small, ill-tempered, nervous dog. I loved him immediately.

It was fall, my sophomore year of college, and four of us (all liberal arts majors) decided to take Scientific Methods together.  It fulfilled an Honors requirement, we’d heard there was very little math involved, and we’d be in it together.

It was a tiny, weird class. There were two seniors, a junior, us, and a thick cloud of hostility. I don’t remember all the reasons why; the professor was kind of a bitter, arrogant, anti-social jerk, but it I also know it wasn’t just him. All I remember are tense stand-offs between one of the seniors and the professor, and me wishing that we could get back to talking about Karl Popper already.

The class was basically a mash-up of science history and theories of scientific inquiry, so I found myself secretly loving it (and increasingly troubled by cognitive dissonance, but a story for another time there). We left behind everything I found torturous about science (measurements, observation, equations) and focused on the narratives and big ideas, the paradigm shifts.

I especially liked anything to do with stars and planets; I became obsessed with the phases of the moon. I don’t really love space travel or science fiction, but I loved the ideas of the multiverse, of star nurseries and syzygy.

The semester ended, of course, and one night that January I found myself curled into a lawn chair, star-gazing in a hidden corner of Tennessee. In my memory, it was the clearest, coldest, brightest sky full of stars I’ve ever seen. The little bonfire cracked and sparked and reddened my face, and nearby we sat in a semi-circle, telling stories and craning our heads back to point out constellations. Friends, starlight, wood fire, my boyfriend holding my hand and tucking his jacket around my shoulders–it should have been a perfect night. But as I looked at the sky that night, I felt swallowed by darkness. I didn’t know much about depression. I didn’t know what was wrong, only that I couldn’t imagine feeling happy ever again.

I looked at the night sky a lot that winter. It didn’t have much to offer. Chaos. Darkness. The abyss.

I mainly star-gaze now at my parents’ house. It’s out in the country, and just far enough beyond the purple haze of Birmingham lights to see some really pretty skies; we lay out on the deck on warm summer evenings, and watch for shooting stars in the dark blue November night. I still see chaos, darkness, the unknown. But I also see the beauty of expansion, of uncertainty and questions.

And maybe that’s why I love my astronomers so much, because they knew what I see now: that above all, the night sky is infinite possibility.



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