Monday, October 18, 2010

Following the Messenger

We have a little roof deck. It's about eight by eight and sits up at eye level with many of the buildings that surround us. There's not much of a city view, but there's a fine view of the stars at night.

Sometimes, when it's been a rough day, I'll go up after supper and sit in the arm chair and look. I'll look and breathe and look, thinking much the same way that a child thinks that their parents have always been there and always will be there, that those little points of light are untouchable by harm or time. They reassure me.

And very recently, there's been one star thats become very bright in the eastern sky. The star happens to be the planet Jupiter, and when I saw it's moons through a pair of low power binoculars I was so excited, that I ordered a real first telescope.

I have to admit that I know next to nothing about astronomy. About the closest I got to studying the subject was a history of science course I took at college. We learned about the early astronomers from Aristotle to Copernicus to Tyco Brahe.

And we learned about the modern master of those who know, Galileo.

"I see a planet Daddy," my daughter said on a recent night with as much excitement as she did when she first saw fireworks, "I can see the moon."

It's amazing to me that the two of us can stand together, thousands of miles and hundreds of years from where Galileo stood and see the same moons circling Jupiter. It's kind of the same excitement that you feel when you're tuning into a short wave radio and pick up a transmission from a great, great distance.

"This must be what he saw too," I found myself saying out loud and my little girl, looking cute in her jean jacket and sherpa lined crocs, looked up at me quickly to see who I was talking about.

"Galileo," I said, and told her a little about why he's one of my heros.

I think the most remarkable things about him, was that with the mind he had, and in the time that he lived, he chose to write in the vulgar; that is, in the language of the people; that is, for those of us who could easily have been shut out - and got himself shut in (under house arrest) in the process.

But it was that very same work that got him into trouble, The Starry Messenger, that I think of when I look out at the sky. I think of Galileo setting up late into the night watching first one moon and then another and another circle Jupiter. I think of him seeing those moons circle and begin to deduce away the great imaginary cathedral walls that had until that time risen all the way to heaven. I think of him standing there just as we are standing here and I feel closer to his thought than to any great scientific mind in the ages that have passed between.

"Can I look one more time," my daughter asks, and although I'm sleepy, I say yes and let her look.

We're only looking at the near sky objects right now. I know there are more remote, and possibly more stunning things to be seen, but even if I had the equipment, I'm not sure it would be any more fun than what we're doing right now anyhow.

It's a wonder to be gazing at the same wonders that he looked at long ago. It's a wonder to be seeing the same planets that he discovered. It make me think that of all the great minds his seems to shine the brightest, not the least because he drew close enough to us to be observed.

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