Archive for January, 2012

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you say you want a revolution

January 2, 2012

Many moons ago I was an Astronomy major at Wellesley.  One of the benefits of studying at a small liberal arts college is that every evening, once the students from the introductory level courses are finished with their night labs, the telescopes are turned over to the majors to play in the heavens as we please.

Wellesley has a pair of refracting telescopes, made by hand in the mid to late 1800’s and constructed of wood, brass and glass.  The majestic long cylinders are conduits to the skies, revealing details of our solar system’s planets and their moons.  When using these instruments we could feel a connection to all of the other young women whose hands and eyes had touched them in the generations before us.  Standing in the dark, you could almost feel their presence guiding our work.

But more serious research on campus is conducted on the modern, metal reflector telescope with a 24-inch primary mirror.  This telescope is driven not by warm hands, but by cool electronics.  We would enter the stellar coordinates into the computer and the tube would slew into position.

I spent hundreds of nights gazing at the stars, and this is the story of just one evening.  A couple of us were using the largest telescope to work on an assignment for class.  It was well past midnight and we were punchy with exhaustion.  We were looking at double star systems; suns that are gravitationally bound together, spending their lives in a revolving dance of elliptical orbits.  We entered the right ascension and declination data, the celestial equivalent of longitude and latitude, and waited for the telescope to move into place. Then one of us peered into the eyepiece.  Instead of the expected pair of pinpoint lights, what was seen was a couple of diffuse rings, small circles of light with soft edges.  Another classmate looked to verify the sight.  It was true.  We double-checked the coordinates, we had, indeed, entered the numbers correctly.  But what were we seeing?

The mass of a star determines how long it will live and what will happen at the end of its life span.  For large enough suns their death is marked by a brilliant explosion.  The collapsing mass will rush inward, imploding at the center and in the process throw off a ring of debris, creating a supernova.

Our bleary eyes and weary minds quickly jumped to this possibility:  a rare (had anyone ever seen such a thing before?) double supernova.  Our thoughts raced at the speed of light, traveling to the conclusion that we must be the first to see this prodigious phenomenon, because surely we would have heard of its discovery had it been previously observed.  We were ready to contact the IAU (International Astronomical Union) to stake claim to our findings.  But first, in a moment of clarity, we recognized we should call one of our professors.  The phone rang many times before a groggy voice rather incoherently answered the phone.  With the rush of confidence we, in raised and rapid tones, explained all that had occurred.

There was a long, long silence on the line.

Our hearts slowed with each second that passed, deflating our surety and our hopes.  The voice of reason and experience explained our error.  There was no double supernova.  The telescope was simply, yet extraordinarily, out of focus.  If we had bothered to slew the telescope in any direction we would have found that every star in the night sky would also appear as an ethereal disk.  Click and dial tone.

Sheepishly we returned to the dome and held the focus button for long moments until the stars resolved into pinpricks of light.  We had been blinded by our assumptions, and failed to see the truth.

On this New Year’s Day, as our planet starts a new revolution around our sun, we have an opportunity to bring our own parenting lenses back into focus.  Over time, we see our children from certain perspectives, creating a rut of expectation and response.  We are unaware of the bias that clouds our view, fogging the reality of who our children truly are.  So let us resolve to clear our vision, to release old assumptions and embrace the technicolor nuance and verity of each child.  What wonders will we discover?  Let’s keep each other posted (but might I suggest we postpone contacting the IAU).

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