Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The dim and the dark

My spouse found this photo yesterday, at the bottom of some drawer or other. It dates from nearly half-a-century ago, one of my first years as a young prof at Stonehill College. That's me on the left, setting out the plastic cups. The fellow with the dark shades, popping the bubbly, is my cool friend from the English Department, Professor Peter Lucchesi. Of the students, I can name only one, the dark-haired girl who looks more serious than the occasion warrants.

We are dedicating the college's first observatory, a terribly modest affair, a 2x4-and-plywood shed with a roll-back roof, sitting in a dark field that these days is filled with an impressive array of sports facilities.

The scope is -- if I remember right -- a Criterion RV-6 Dynascope 6-inch Newtonian reflector. I think I once called it a Celestron here; that was a mistake. I forget what we paid for it; probably something like $500. This was back when good amateur scopes with apertures of six inches or more were first coming on the market. Whatever the cost, it was a major investment for the college, for which I was grateful, and it served us well for a couple of decades until a new science building came along with two proper observatory domes.

Many a cold night we clustered in that tiny enclosure and searched out wonders of the universe. This was before the Vikings gave us spectacular close-ups of the outer planets, and a glimpse through the telescope of Saturn's rings might be the thrill of a lifetime.

The skies were dark and our imaginations fertile. The Ring Nebula in Lyra was a barely visible smoke ring; we supplied the colossal star destruction with our imaginations. The Double Cluster in Perseus, the galaxy M81 in Ursa Major, the Crab in Taurus -- mere smudges of light out of which we contrived a cosmos of mind-popping dimension and splendor.

How things have changed! The roll-top shed is long gone, and the field -- the campus! -- is flooded with artificial light. Five hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket of today's college's budget. And I suspect those faint blurs that so excited us back in 1966 would not do much to fire the imaginations of a generation of young people who can tour the universe without leaving their dorm room.

Today's students are getting a different sort of education -- opportunities for real scientific research with an impressive faculty and a $34-million state-of-the-art science facility. We had none of that in 1966, only frosty toes and the challenge of making a life out of darkness, passion, and dreams.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams.

--W. B. Yeats