A life of courage, joy and independence.
When we were boys our father introduced my brother Lyle and me to Astronomy, Physics and Cosmology with a small telescope he would tote out to the desert and set up as the sun went down. He’d show us Venus, and explain why it’s called the “Evening Star” and why it always appears only at dusk and dawn and only just above the horizon. When visible, he’d ask us to pick out Mars, which was easy, due to it’s reddish color. Jupiter and Saturn where harder to find though dad taught us the trick of looking for “stars” that didn’t twinkle as these were not stars but planets, their stronger light not so easily distorted by the Earth’s atmosphere. He used the clear desert night to map out the solar system for us until I felt like I was standing on a high mountain peak, and could see the broad horizon of the inner solar system from Mercury to where the gas giants began. I remember sometimes feeling my legs go weak as my mind suddenly wrapped itself around the fact that I was actually seeing and comprehending the true breadth and scale of the inner solar system. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a great void of reality and witnessing a field of view of impossible scope and magnitude.
When the telescope was done we’d sit around the fire and mom would make hot chocolate with little marshmallows floating at the top. I remember one time dad pulling out two flashlights and handing these to Lyle and me. He told us to aim the flashlights straight up, hold still and then turn them on for five seconds. We’d sit there counting aloud before switching off at the count of five. He then taught us about light; explaining how it was both a particle and a wave (that took some time) and then capping that concept off with the mind-blowing revelation of how fast light moved. I really struggled to understand what 186,000 miles per second meant, though dad helped by explaining that “a beam of light could travel around the world seven times in one second.” Dad said that those beams Lyle and I fired off were at that moment racing away from Earth (the parts that didn’t get absorbed by the atmosphere) at the speed of light and would continue their journey on a relatively straight path for the rest of our lives, our children’s lives, their children’s lives and far beyond for millions, maybe billions of years, possibly right across the Universe.
I remember another time when dad showed us the Orion constellation and told us about the Hunter and how people used to make up stories about what they saw in the starry sky. He then pointed out two stars which make up the upper and lower corners of Orion and which are two of the brightest stars in the night sky. He said these stars are Rigel (lower right) and Betelgeuse (upper left). He said these stars were similar yet very different. Both are giants only about 10 million years old which, if suddenly to replace our sun, would have edges out by the asteroid belt. He said Betelgeuse is a red giant and the bloated dying corpse of a star near the end of it’s life. Dad said the Betelgeuse supernova could happen anytime (even in our lifetimes) and might outshine the full moon for several weeks. Rigel is a blue giant burning hot and young yet destined to die early for it’s high metabolism. Dad said that Rigel was once especially important to navigators for it’s bright luminosity and the fact that it can be seen from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Most interestingly though was what he told us about Orion’s belt. Dad trained the telescope to the fuzzy bit in the middle of the belt and had us take a look. All we saw was a smudge of light resembling a cloud. Dad told us that what we were looking was indeed a cloud, a cloud of stellar dust from one or more dead stars which had exploded and spilled their insides into space. He pointed out that the cloud was illuminated by many new young stars which were being born from the material of their dead parents. He said the cloud was a stellar nursery, and that our own sun had likely been born from a similar nursery and that our very bodies were formed of materials crafted from the inner furnaces of long dead stars.
Those nights in the desert with the telescope, the campfire and the hot chocolate meant so much to me… And though dad’s been gone twenty two years I can still hear his voice and see his bearded face across the fire, telling us about the stars. And I can’t help but remember my beam of light riding forever to the edge of the Universe every time I pick up a flashlight. I look forward now to taking my daughter to the desert, to build a fire, to assemble a telescope, and to take out a flashlight to give her to point at the sky, and then ask her to fire a beam of light for five seconds, so that I can retell my father’s stories to a new generation.