Last Monday evening, about an hour after darkness fell, I drove to a high point near my house in Colorado. I wanted to observe a nine-hundred-year event where, from the Earth’s perspective, the planets of Jupiter and Saturn were close together. The experts said they would be visible to the naked eye.
The hilltop I chose had little light pollution, and relatively few other observers.
The image was slightly fuzzy because the two planets were close to my horizon and, therefore, the light from them had to pass through a significant amount of the Earth’s atmosphere to reach me. However, pulling out my trusty, if cheap, binoculars, enabled me to see the globe of Jupiter and, almost, the Rings of Saturn. The latter required a little imagination but not much, to my surprise.
I knew what I was looking at, from my days of teaching astronomy as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois. However, I was not prepared for my reaction when I was looking at the real thing, albeit fuzzy and distant.
I felt a calm, a perspective, and, to some extent, a pivotal moment. Somehow, the reality of what I had studied and taught long ago, evoked a strange reaction that I still cannot properly define or explain a week later. It was certainly humbling but that was only part of it. Perhaps the word perspective, in its broadest sense, is the best I can do to describe the feeling.
I remember some of Neil Armstrong’s words when he looked back at the Earth from the Moon’s surface. Those words transmitted the same sort of wonder and perspective that I was feeling. In my early twenties, Armstrong’s concepts and words didn’t resonate. Fifty years later, last Monday, they did.
Let me try again: Wonder; excitement, a great feeling of smallness and isolation mixed with a great feeling of belonging and calm. Total dichotomies I realize, but real.
Having lived through the idiocies of the recent U.S. presidential election, it is inevitable that one would be thinking small, and very short-term. Somehow, looking at Jupiter and Saturn from the Earth’s perspective woke me up to a different mentality. I am grateful, even though I don’t understand it. I may never understand it, but I’m very glad I decided to drive those few miles last Monday. Next time, in nine-hundred-years-time – I’ll buy a better set of binoculars. Who knows what perspectives I might experience?