University Lowbrow Astronomers

Just Look Up.

by Liz Calhoun
Printed in Reflections: January, 2009.

On a bitter cold evening in February of 2007, when everybody else on my block was indoors with the thermostat cranked up, my housemate and I put on seventeen layers of outer wear and took up position in our driveway, our faces turned to the southwest horizon. I thought I saw the movement of drapes in the front windows of the house directly across the street: someone studying yet more aberrant behavior on the part of two girls already known for being the first to have their walks shoveled after a snowfall and their lawn meticulously mowed in the summer months. Unnatural. And here was more proof, as the mercury dropped to 15°, two crazy people standing in an ice-caked, sloping driveway looking at the sky.

I turned my face to my housemate and said, “This reminds me of the evenings that my mom would drag us out onto the front lawn to look at Telstar!” But I imagine it probably sounded like “Fruzzznufffummelstrrrrmmmmssssmrrrr!” through a hood, a balaclava, and a thick woolen scarf. “Harrrfrrr,” she agreed. We went back to looking up. I checked my watch, rolling up twelve sleeves to find its face. We were two minutes late. Did we miss it? (No, my watch was fast: the ISS is ALWAYS on time.)

M.’s gloved hand pointed into the distance, and there came up in an arc a bright jewel steady and sure. The hair stood on the back of my neck. I started to get choked up. That was a SPACE STATION coming toward us overhead, precise in its travel, without anti-collision lights blinking ... In my excitement I slipped on a floe of ice and went down on my bad knee. Onward came the ISS, brightening in the sunset, crossing overhead—gosh, the NASA URL was right, you *could* see the thing from your backyard. We went back inside and warmed up and used the computer to find out when we’d see the ISS again. Over the course of the spring and summer we got used to its rhythms and went out of our way to look up and see it. One occasion after a shuttle launch, we thought we’d lagged behind our time frame again and got outside to see our jewel trailing away into the east. But within moments another jewel soared soundlessly overhead, and we realized like a blow that we’d seen the shuttle *and* the ISS that night. All you had to do was look up.

When the news of Comet Holmes’s mysterious explosion appeared in the media that fall, my housemate said,“Where is this thing? I want to see it.” We went into the driveway in October of ‘07, a bit warmer than that February ISS sighting previously, and put our birding binoculars on the fuzzy baseball hanging in the northeast. “Wow,” said M. “Wow,” I nodded. I started to think about how easy that was, to see a comet from my driveway. The next day I went to Border’s and bought the current Sky & Telescope. Then I bought a book on binocular astronomy. THEN I bought a pair of decent basic astronomy binoculars, and then a $116 Astronomy 101 textbook ... (And then I joined the Lowbrows, but that’s getting ahead of my narrative.)

In fact my mother did drag us out onto the lawn in the early 60s to see Telstar. She’d earned a BA Ed. from the University of Michigan in 1950, her major in English and minor in General Science. (My dad had his BA Ed. from MSU, in Industrial Arts and Music.) I was the only kid I knew who got tutored in English and lectured on hydrogen fusion in grade school, and was discouraged from attending church and REQUIRED to read as much science fiction as possible. The advent of the first color television in the household was hailed as the event whereby we would finally see Mr. Spock’s green complexion. It was obvious that as first-born, I was marked out for a career in Science! One hitch: I just couldn’t do the math. Over and over again I frustrated my mother’s most cherished dreams: her darling daughter had the mathematical aptitude of a block plane. And astronomy in the 60s and 70s was mostly about math, SLIDE RULE math. When I went off to college in 1977, it was to study Medieval History. I had utterly betrayed my mother.

But I had not betrayed myself: at home in my now-abandoned room were still the posters of moon maps and the planets that came with the cheesy Tasco “zoom” refractor that my parents had bought me for a Christmas present in 1975. My bookshelves overflowed with S-F—I even wrote some of my own to amuse my High School classmates. Doing the research was tough, in the pre-Internet Dark Ages. It meant traipsing down to the Public Library and spending tens of dollars in photocopying, or camping out at the local planetarium for every change of program. But I didn’t go any deeper than that. In fact away at college under the East Lansing lights, I did indeed often forget to look up. I watched the original “Battlestar Galactica” like all the other S-F misfits I knew; and I can’t explain it, that I lived a science fiction crazy adolescence and young adulthood surrounded by astronomy and “know your night sky” books without really ever immersing myself in the SCIENCE part of S-F. I think it was that math business that somehow seemed to defeat me before the sun even set on a clear night.

And, inexplicably, when I had as a housemate a Dr. Science-type guy with a double degree in Mechanical Engineering and Astrophysics from the U., whose main occupation was drawing components of the high-energy antimatter telescope for a multi-organization project headquartered at the Dennison Building ... even THAT did not motivate me to throw myself headlong into learning the constellations and finishing A Brief History of Time.

For me, it all “started” (again) with the ISS and Comet Holmes, and the rest is history. I leafed through that $116 astronomy text and learned that there was more than one kind of reflecting telescope! And that there were *terrestrial* planets and *jovian* planets. I called Dr. Science, who now lives in Fairbanks, and told him what I’d learned—at the tender age of 48. He chuckled, long distance. “Yes, there’s quite a difference between the terrestrials and jovians.” We had a long talk about the Large Hadron Collider and that famous high-energy antimatter telescope he partly designed, back in ‘92-93-94. It was starting to make sense to me—even without the math. I was breathless. All the little bits and pieces of knowledge I’d accumulated over the years were falling into place.

Then this September I went off to my annual vacation to the shores of Crystal Lake, outside Frankfort, MI. It’s a pretty un-light-polluted location. I’d been practicing observing in my backyard, getting in shape with the Teapot asterism, a couple of beefy doubles in Lyra, and extra-credit sprints with the planisphere that I special-ordered from OPT. I was ready to UNDERSTAND what I hoped I would see on my vacation. The first clear night we were out on the dock about 20 yards from the front of our cottage, backsides on the cold aluminum of the decking, Crystal Lake quietly murmuring under us. There was Cygnus, Hercules, and Lyra, then so many more stars grew in intensity as the dark deepened and our pupils widened. My intentions had been the great galaxy in Andromeda and more doubles, but I wound up riveted by the two open clusters in Perseus. My binoculars swung between M31 and those clusters for easily an hour, mosquitoes buzzing around us. I had never before felt as if I owned the sky, but now it was mine mine all mine: it was always there, waiting for me to come out into the dark and, yes: JUST LOOK UP. It never had to be any more difficult than that, and I realized with sincere contrition that I could have been doing it twenty-thirty years ago, and simply didn’t.

So in this coming International Year of Astronomy, if anyone approaches you and asks: WHAT do I need to do to get started in astronomy? Tell them they need a night sky and a moment to look up and just see what’s up there, as our ancient ancestors did long ago. Just look up. That’s all it takes.


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