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C.R.

United States

Beholding the Celestial Expanse

July 22, 2015

Tick. Tick. Tick. The monotonous sound of the clock was interrupted by a pervasive groan that shook the room. Three new images of Messier 13, the Great Cluster in Hercules, appeared on my monitor. I began to click, adding stars according to their apparent luminosities to my Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. Having selected fifty of them, I adjusted the viewing coordinates, rolled back from my desk, and again felt the telescope revolve and rumble above.

Ever since I uttered my first word — “moon” — I have cultivated an interest in anything extra-terrestrial. Holed up in the control room of the WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, however, I had not been thinking about the extraordinary nature of the universe. Instead, I was distressed that there were not enough red giants in my data. So, like Whitman upon hearing the Learn’d Astronomer, I stepped outside to gaze at the stars themselves. As I lay on the Arizona rocks, picking out various constellations and recollecting stories about them, I remembered why I love astronomy.

When I see the Milky Way stretched across the night sky, or sunlight gleaming off the moon, or perhaps a satellite prowling across the ecliptic, I feel a connection between myself and this world that I cannot find anywhere else. It is an intellectual bond apart from time. The sky is the same now as it was when I was little, when my dad first told me the story of Hercules defeating Leo, the Nemean Lion. It is nearly indistinguishable from the sky studied by Galileo and Copernicus as they revolutionized the field of astronomy, and the stars in it are precisely those to which the Ancient Egyptians built their glorious monuments. Flattened on the face of the Earth, hurtling through space, and looking up at the shimmering cosmos, I am connected to the history of discovery

Most people feel small and insignificant when they attempt to place themselves in a galactic context — I only feel small. I am an avid explorer. Inhabiting the boundary between what is known and unknown, seeking the thrill of discovery, is something I savor. It has driven so many of my pursuits, ranging from deep-sea wreck diving to cancer research. The prospect of splitting another cell plate or running another gel has lost some of its initial allure, yet I return to the lab each day with that same sense of excitement, knowing that I am operating on the edge of discovery.

At times, I prefer to be purely contemplative, withdrawing from the pursuit of knowledge in order to cogitate, reminisce, and achieve a sense of calm lying on my back under the cover of the stars. I need these moments in order to appreciate the grandeur of the physical world and to bring myself closer to what I hold most important: a connection to humanity, to an intellectulism that bridges centuries, ethnicities, creeds, and so much more. Beholding with unaided eye the celestial expanse — so easily observable yet so beyond my reach — I am motivated to return to the observatory, eager to do my part in closing that distance.

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