Astronomers are terrific at explaining things


Just days after the U.S. Presidential election (and feeling like hell because of it), I found myself in a dark room at Cornell University learning about what the Cassini spacecraft has taught us about Saturn’s rings. Cornell professor Phil Nicholson, who is also editor of the journal Icarus, talked about the rings: what they are, how they move and the kinds of forces that influence them. Scientists like Nicholson are making sense out of the great mysteries of our universe (and beyond), and guess what they’re discovering? Additional mysteries. We are learning all the time. Cassini transmits data point after data point and photo after truly amazing photo. And yet: mystery.

It was a gift to be able to travel 750 million miles away for a couple hours  and understand that the point isn’t always to answer the question in front of you. It’s a delightful tease: I’ll reveal some of what you want to know, but I also have to tell you I have more secrets than you ever imagined. It’s a form of magic when the questions multiply.

Leave it to the poet in the room to mash up magic and science, but that is poetry: to get so close to something that you understand less about its moving parts than when you started your exploration. For everything we figure out (or make our best guesses about), we find new phenomena to interrogate. Did you know there are mountains in Saturn’s rings? Mountains! Generally, the rings are only about 30 feet thick, but some of the ripples / peaks can be over 1 1/2 miles high. They’re not sure what causes these vertical structures to form, but they discovered them because of the shadows they cast.

In fact, starlight is a huge help to scientists studying Saturn (and I imagine all of space). Nicholson is part of a team of scientists in charge of the infrared spectrometer on Cassini. If I understand correctly, this device “sees” stars beyond Saturn and measures how much starlight gets through Saturn’s icy rings… creating data points that teach scientists about the rings themselves.

Some rings are opaque and nearly zero light gets through. Others are more translucent, like “gauzy curtains” (I think that’s how Nicholson described them). The assumption may be that particles and chunks of ice in the more opaque rings are more concentrated, but that’s not necessarily true. As Nicholson says here, “Appearances can be deceiving. A good analogy is how a foggy meadow is much more opaque than a swimming pool, even though the pool is denser and contains a lot more water.” Astronomers are terrific at explaining things.

That’s why — even though the slideshow was heavy with mathematical equations and truly psychedelic line graphs — I got a great deal out of the presentation… including when it came to how the rings move and respond to objects, like Saturn itself or some of its satellites (moons). For example, the slide in the photo I’ve included with my post shows two of these satellites — Pandora and Prometheus. They sit on either side of Saturn’s F ring and are called “shepherds.”  (Here’s a photo of them from NASA, whose caption for the image says, “Saturn’s moons Prometheus and Pandora with their flock of icy ring particles between them.”) I’m grateful to the sciences, like astronomy,  that embrace story and metaphor as a way of making the material — and the new questions it spawns — accessible to those of us whose minds work differently.

I was visiting Cornell with my son, B., whose brain works much more like Nicholson’s than mine. B. is applying to colleges, and we popped into the Fuertes Observatory for the Cornell Astronomical Society’s lecture the night before our official tour of campus. One of the great joys of parenting is watching what sparks your kids’ imagination, and getting up close to the physics of Saturn’s rings was truly exciting for him. It intrigued him. He learned quite a bit, and he had lots more questions.

The audience did ask questions following the presentation. The room was full of college students and amateur astronomers. Their questions were detailed and insightful and mostly sought to go deeper into how it all works. B. didn’t ask a question, and neither did I. But I had one. My question for Nicholson was, when it’s time to steer Cassini straight into Saturn at the end of its mission (Fall 2017), will you feel sad? Will you miss it?

Leave it to a poet to want to understand the depth of our attachments.

In the fall of the coming year, my mission takes a sharp turn, as well. Everything seems and feels like a metaphor for B. preparing to leave home. I do understand that the metaphor I’ve just arrived at is a particularly bad one: though I will miss him, we’re not crashing him into Saturn. But here’s where the metaphor does work: I have more questions than when we started. I know what we’ve learned along the way and what we have, and I can see how much else there is to see. Instead of racing toward the answers to my questions — Where will he end up? Will he be happy? What will it be like for him? and for me? — I’m really trying to see the beauty in this exact moment, watching all the questions tumble out of my arms and onto the ground. They multiply. They are additional mysteries. And they’re being shown to me in this moment.

I have a feeling B.  is going to lead the way. That’s how this thing works. And not just this “he’s preparing to leave home” thing, but this entire parenting thing, too. He’s shown me what he’s needed all along the way, and I’ve done what I could do (and lots that I never imagined I could do). When he first showed me Saturn’s rings through the telescope on our front lawn a year or so ago, I was genuinely amazed. I hadn’t known it was possible. But he knew. And he went out there and brought it into view.

* * *

UPDATE (a section of links I’m collecting on Saturn’s final year):

Smithsonian: In its final hurrah, Cassini will swoop past Saturn’s rings

6 thoughts on “Astronomers are terrific at explaining things

  1. Someone told me when I became a mother, “you do what you have to do”. I have been taught by my son, as you have, just exactly what that means. Lovely piece of work here.

  2. Pingback: In the face of everything | GOOD UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR

  3. Pingback: In the face of everything – Writers' Correspondence

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