Sunday, February 24, 2008

stop and smell the eclipse


Here's what the eclipse last week looked like from the middle of the country. I take a night class on Wednesdays and a friend asked me if I wanted to go to a nearby small college where they had telescopes set up in the middle of a field. I pretended to consider it, then turned him down. There was no way. Our class ended at 8pm. The best viewing was supposed to happen between 9 and 10. I had three whole classes to read for the next day, plus my law note draft was due the day after, plus the public interest group was having a bake sale the next day and had twice requested my banana bread. There was no way I was going to get everything done even if I dashed to the store and immediately home. Sorry.

I wasn't happy about this, but it was the way it would have to be. I love all things astronomical. I have a Night Sky widget on my desktop so I can see what the current constellations are facing any direction. When I was younger I was obsessed with the rings of Saturn and doodled them constantly.

We left class at 8pm and I walked out to my car. It was very cold. The kind of cold where you immediately feel how deeply cold the pavement is through the soles of your shoes. I looked up. The sky was glittery and clear. The eclipse was just taking the first little bite out of the moon.

My heart failed a little when I saw that. How could I not go watch it? I consoled myself with the thought that I could slip out my door while the bread was baking and check up on the progress of it as it slowly moved across the moon.

Driving to the grocery store I had a thought. What if we had the time wrong, and the best time to view it was not at 9, but now? What if the time had been Eastern time, not Central time? I called my friend and left a message relaying my theory. If he called me back, maybe I would meet him out there. If not, oh well.

Half-way through the supermarket he called me. He said the time was correctly adjusted for Central viewing, but why didn't I just swing by his house and pick him up?

Reader, I did. We drove in the dark out to the little college, on twisty back roads that filled me with panic. What if we couldn't find it, and missed the eclipse, and I STILL didn't get home till 10pm?

We found the signs for the college, drove along even more twisty dark roads, stopped and asked several students where the astronomy building was, parked, and trotted through the darkness towards a small huddle of people gathered around variously-shaped telescopes.

The scene had the air of an ancient ritual. There weren't very many people. A few older couples, some children, some hippie-looking students, an astronomy geek in a jester's hat. Four or five squat cylinders situated in a semicircle. People moving quietly from one eyepiece to the next, murmuring softly. Clouds of breath in the frosty air.

Overhead the moon turned dark red as a shadow crept across its pockmarked face.

I tried to take a picture with my phone, but the moon just looked like a faraway light. Then I held it up to an eyepiece on the off chance I could somehow take advantage of the magnification. I watched the dark screen of my phone as I turned, turned, and then suddenly, a flicker. I snapped it. And there it was--my first good picture of an astronomical event. I didn't care if I sat there all night. I felt giddy. I text messaged GF first, then the rest of my friends so far away from that field at that moment. "Look outside!" I told them. Then I sent my picture.

In another telescope you could see Saturn. Not the giant planet of NASA photos, but the tiniest glimmering jewel in the middle of the scope. White-hot and silvery, with the tiniest, most perfect rings.

My friends started texting me back. "Cool Picture!" "Awesome!" "We're watching it right now!"

I stood under the moon, smiling a huge smile. Overhead, the belly of the moon grew dark, but my soul was light. I felt all the people I loved, no matter how far away they were, calmly circling around me, like lazy swimmers.

1 comment:

m(mmm) said...

I was a class away from an astronomy minor, so I'm right with you with the fascination.