Yesterday, many of the wedding guests sat around the great dome at Lick Observatory, waiting our chance to go down and look through the giant refractor telescope. Someone to the left of me said that he wanted to be an astronomer -- I said no, I wanted to be an astronaut. Someone on my right said yes, she wanted to be a moon colonist -- and while I'd do that, if they asked me, what I'd really want would be to be an explorer, an astronaut heading out. Far out. Finding new places, new stars, new civilizations (ah, yes -- now you know why I watch Star Trek. :-)
We saw M15 through the huge telescope. I can show you some pictures -- here's a diagram to put it in context, and here's a photo. It's not the same, though. Look at the photo -- and then imagine it much sharper, cleaner. Feel the cold air gusting down through the open slit in the roof of the observatory, and the vast telescope above you, with its array of lenses. Imagine this being your life's work, to come here at night, to stand shivering in the cold and look up at what is impossibly far -- to know that that light had been travelling towards us for forty thousand years, far longer than our small 'civilizations' have existed...
I would make a terrible astronomer. I would get very lonely.
It was comforting, later, looking through a smaller telescope set out at the edge of the parking lot. (Colder, too.) We saw Jup iter, with its small circle of moons. The image was much smaller, of course, and far whiter -- I don't know why -- but the bands of clouds were clearly visible. Imagine! To be able to see the clouds of another planet through a telescope...I suppose I knew it was possible, but still. We saw Saturn as well, a tiny white disk with its ring - as David said, it didn't look quite real. Like a child's silver sticker of Saturn. The stars were so many up there at the top of the mountain (with a half hour of twisting, climbing roads to get there) -- I don't think I've ever seen so many stars before. So many that I couldn't find a single constellation with the naked eye... But there was Saturn, and Jupiter -- that helped. Hello, neighbors.
Maybe it's time to go watch _Contact_ again.