Simple, profound joys: The Whirlpool Galaxy
I’ve been a science-fiction buff (some would say, nerd) since I learned to read. I still subscribe to three sci-fi magazines. I see every movie eventually, even the really deliciously bad ones from the 1950s. But I am increasingly prone to stay home.
At the urging of my family, I tried to watch “The Avengers,” which got great reviews from practically everybody for its nonstop action.
I had to walk out of the theater. As my Italian grandmother used to say, “Too much. Too much.”
I have come to appreciate simpler, more profound joys like the structure of a leaf or the Whirlpool Galaxy in a big telescope at Perkins Observatory. Hundreds of billions of stars in the shape of a child’s pinwheel have an appeal that pixilated exploding planets and quick-cut superhero battles can never match.
I spent a good chunk of my life wanting to see the spiral arms of the Whirlpool. A small telescope or binoculars just won’t cut it. The galaxy is 25 million light years away. Multiply that number by 6 trillion, and you’ll get the number of miles. At that distance, even a galaxy 100,000 light years across fades to a smudge.
I first saw the smudge in binoculars as soon as I was old enough to hold them steady. Someday, I vowed, I would have a telescope big enough to see the spiral structure. To that end, I built a series of larger and larger telescopes. I was pretty broke at the time, so I sold each telescope to finance the next larger one, ordered a new set of telescope mirrors, and hammered together the new telescope out of scrap plywood in my garage.
Then, I waited again for the first clear, moonless night and drove my new creation out to some rural site far from city lights and indoor plumbing. I waited again for the galaxy to rise high enough in the sky to be seen properly. I looked. “Still a SMUDGE,” I whispered to myself each time, as my mind calculated what it would cost me in time, effort and missed lunches to construct an even bigger telescope.
At long last, my 17-inch-diameter mirror came in the mail. I had saved my lunch money for more than a year to get it, and then I had waited another year for the optical company to fabricate it. I finished the telescope in a single weekend of frenzied building.
It still smelled of newly cut wood as I loaded it in the car.
I will never forget the warm spring night when I stood on the lawn at Perkins Observatory. (In those days, they wouldn’t let me in the building.) At first, I saw the bright, central hub, but I had seen that many times before. As my eyes slowly adapted to the dark, out of the hub curled the glorious spiral arms.
You might think that the experience was a bit anticlimactic after all that waiting, but it wasn’t. I was seeing the basic unit, the defining quality, of the universe with a telescope I had built with my own hands and heart. I was collecting the real photons of light that had traveled 25 million years to reach my eyes and then die. But I didn’t mourn for that light. It was reborn in an instant as an undimmed memory I will carry with me all the rest of my days.
So turn off your TVs. Throw away your computer games. While you’re at it, tell your children for me that we have to stop implying to them in word and deed that the only experiences worth having involve exploding planets and severed heads. You’ll find more in the light dancing in a forest or the touch of a hand on your own or the subtle structure of a galaxy than you will find in a thousand Sith lords or Jedi knights.
I cannot promise you that learning about your world will be easy. All I can promise you is a universe of indescribable beauty and experiences that will fill a lifetime with unending wonder. All I can promise is a life of intellectual and emotional fulfillment, a slow but steady journey ever upward toward the light.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at email@example.com or 740–363-1257.