Thursday, September 11, 2008
Sitting out on the back porch with my best friend Starr Ann last night, feeling awful spent from two weeks worth of raging over politics, we'd both pretty much run out of things to say, or even thoughts to think.
After a long silence, and right when I thought Starr Ann was going to suggest we check on the horses one last time before packing it in for the night, she took a luxuriously deep breath and said, "The air smells like stars, Margo. Let's do some observing."
I could hardly believe it. Starr Ann hadn't used that expression since before The Astronomy Incident.
The Astronomy Incident happened way back last winter, not long after Jodie gave Starr Ann a telescope for her birthday. Well, Starr Ann fell chaps over boots in love with the night sky because of that telescope. She even joined our local astronomy club. That's where Starr Ann met Rosa, who was more than an amateur, she was halfway through her doctorate in astrophysics. Yep. But she still loved to do plain old visual observing, still loved to treat her eyes to those billion-year-old photons.
Anyway, we got to be pretty good friends with Rosa, and one day she came by Happy Hands Ranch to invite us to this seminar that the university was sponsoring. She said a lot of the presentations would be technical, but the main topic was a pretty innerestin' one. All these physicists were coming to give talks on their work with something called hohlraums. Hohlraums are these thick-walled chambers made out of gold, where scientists try to mimic certain phases of star formation. Well, once we saw the lights go on in Rosa's eyes when she started talking about this field she loved so much, we wanted to go to the conference with her no matter how far over our heads the whole thing was.
The conference started on a Wednesday night, and Starr Ann and I showed up in our dress chaps and cleanest hats, which could have made us feel kinda overdressed, because the scientists mainly wore jeans and linty shirts, but they were so gracious we didn't feel at all out of place.
So, we sat through a few talks that were real fascinating, even without us having any idea what the graphs or the math meant, but still, the pictures of the hohlraums, and the way the physicists got all sparkly about their work, just like Rosa had, just made us feel like part of something special.
Then they introduced this guy from the Department of Energy, and he got all puffed up and started consulting his notes. He didn't have any slides or anything, so Starr Ann and I kinda lost the thread of his whole speech. At the end of his talk, during the question and answer part, we still must not have been listening too closely, because we didn't really hear the exact question somebody asked him, but all of a sudden the mood in the whole place took a turn. And this DOE guy looked out at the audience for several seconds with this real uncharitable look on his face before saying, "Why do you think the government bothers to fund you people, anyway? Do you think it's to satisfy intellectual curiosity? I've got news for you. You get funded because to the government, a star is basically a great big fusion bomb."
Well, we didn't see Rosa again, and from that night on, Starr Ann hadn't been to a star party or even taken her telescope out one single time. So, that's why I was real surprised when Starr Ann said that about the air smelling like stars.
And in answer to her, I said, "Heck, yeah!" But when we got right down to setting up the telescope and deciding what to look at, we realized the waxing gibbous moon was really too bright for good seeing.
Only thing is, once Starr Ann gets herself an idea, she hangs on for all she's worth. She said, "How about we situate the truck so the moon's at our backs and bundle up in a sleeping bag on the hood all cozy to watch for shooting stars?"
So, I pulled the truck around to a little dark spot at the bottom of a hill and Starr Ann fixed our nest. We climbed up onto the hood and leaned our backs against two chair cushions spread across the windshield. The whole setup was comfortable as could be and put us in a perfect position for gazing upward.
About thirty seconds after we got settled, Starr Ann threw the sleeping bag off us and jumped down, saying, "Wrong angle. We need to point the truck a little bit eastward."
Dang. I was just getting warm.
This time she was the one who maneuvered the truck and once she got it the way she wanted it, we fluffed the sleeping bag again and crawled back in.
Took about ten seconds this time. Starr Ann just popped right off that truck hood again.
I said, "Dangnation, Starr Ann!"
She said, "Almost. It doesn't feel right yet. Just a little bit back toward the west."
I kid you not, that happened about five times before that girl finally decided our view was perfect.
Finally, once we were tucked way back in the blue shadow of that hill and facing just a little to the left of Cassiopeia, Starr Ann wiggled in beside me and didn't budge again until we saw a long bright streak silently trace itself all the way from underneath Cepheus across Ursa Minor and on through Draco. Starr Ann took another one of those deep, satisfying breaths, and I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, "Help me remember, Margo, that it's all in finding the right way to look at things. And nobody's allowed to take the stars from our eyes."