Watchers Of The Sky


A rumination from Claire L. Evans on viewing planets through a telescope:

At a star party a few years ago, at the McDonald Observatory in the desert reaches of West Texas, an astronomer stationed at a telescope-–pointed at a nebula, I forget which-–gravely intoned to me, "this is the farthest thing you’ll ever see." That’s the essence of it, and what makes it impossible to really appreciate. Through the eyepiece of an optical telescope, you see something right in front of you, and your brain says, there it is: a jellybean, four feet away. Of course, Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and far-flung as it gets, but that doesn’t compute. It might be the farthest thing you’ll ever see, but it looks so close, and in the absence of contextual clues, the ordinary functioning of perspective fires and misses.

And so your awe is self-inflicted. Your awe is one you name to yourself. You almost have to say it out loud, "that’s Neptune," forcing the cognitive dissonance into place. Once there, accepting that your mind has seen farther than biological limitation is its own challenge; the implications take their time unfolding.

(Image Credit: Mike Line (Caltech), Ed Mierkiewicz (Univ. Wisconsin-Madison), Ron Oliversen (NASA-GSFC) from NASA's APOD)