Recall that last week we discussed the questions that boys ask about astronomy at our programs. Generally speaking, they ask about facts. How far away is that? How many Earths will fit inside the sun?
I must confess that I like the girls’ queries better because they generally like to ask “values” questions. They want to know whether I believe in aliens or how it feels to look at the stars, or what I like most about working at Perkins Observatory.
The girls tend to be a bit more skeptical than the boys. Often, when I say something about the universe that contradicts the evidence of their own senses, they will ask, “How do you know that?”
“Ah,” I think. “We have a mind working here,” and I revel in such questions. I will talk about the rainbow band of light that contains much information that lies hidden from our senses. I will show them that velocity sometimes tells us about distance and that color can tell us about temperature.
And of course, most children, girls and boys alike, of a certain age will ask me if I believe in aliens.
“Believe in your family, believe in your country, and believe in your God if you wish,” I reply. “For everything else, demand proof, what the great astronomer Carl Sagan called ‘compelling evidence.’ There is no real proof that aliens exist. There is no proof that they don’t exist. I have talked to many of the experts and read many of the books on aliens, and I have come to a very strong conclusion about the existence of life on other planets. A drum roll please … I don’t know.”
Some laugh. Some groan. So I say, “The words ’I don’t know’ are the most powerful words in the English language if you follow them up with a burning need to know. Perhaps you will be the one to discover the truth if you have that burning need to know.”
At our last school-age program, a 10-year-old girl asked a question I have heard hundreds of times before from hundreds of children and, most often, job shadowers. It must be on some Internet list of job-shadowing questions.
“What’s your favorite thing about working here?” she asked.
There was something about the sincerity in those clear brown eyes that made me stop and think about what to say. I felt at that moment like I ought to give an honest answer, and not the usual platitudes about “showing people the wonder and majesty of the universe.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love to show people what their universe really looks like. I want to pass on the revelations of my youth and inspire people, young and old alike, to look up at the stars. And I am certainly moved to tears when I think of a moment that happened a few years ago.
A well-dressed young senior in high school came up to me during the intermission of a play. He stuck out his hand and said, “I just wanted you to know that my mom took me to Perkins Observatory when I was in the fifth grade. I never forgot it. In September, I’m going to Stanford, and I’m going to major in astronomy.”
Such moments are enough to convince me that I have lived a meaningful life.
But that was not the answer she was looking for. At that moment, a thousand programs and 10,000 children’s faces flashed before my eyes. All of the joy and all of the pain circled through my head. This time, as my stint as director of Perkins Observatory rushes to a close, the question would be much tougher to answer.
One reason for my hesitation is that not all of the 25 years at Perkins have been pleasant ones. During the first few years, I did the programs mostly alone. Money was tight when Ohio State provided the funding. Money was practically non-existent when OSU pulled out, and I was left with a boss at Ohio Wesleyan who told me, “Do whatever you like as long as you can figure out a way to pay for it.”
I remember one Tuesday evening in the spring when I was expecting a busload of third-graders to pull up the long driveway to Perkins. I slumped down on the grass after just a few hours sleep the night before. I felt an acute despair at the long night ahead with a program to do and a stack of confusing freshman composition papers to mark. I would not sleep in my own bed that night if indeed I slept at all.
But when I heard the rumble of a car drive up the driveway, I knew it would be okay. It was a guy from the local astronomy club, the Columbus Astronomical Society. I knew he had come to set up his telescope on the front lawn to help. I knew I would be okay, because I was not alone.
As I write these lines, I want more than anything to be that guy. And thus, I will be more than content to set up one of my personal telescopes on the front lawn at Perkins Observatory. As I was so long ago, I will again just be one of the astronerds showing folks the wonder and majesty of the universe they live in. I will get far greater joy from that pleasant occupation than I did puzzling over the budget and wondering how in heaven’s name the electric bill will get paid. That far-more-onerous task I will leave to others.
But that wasn’t the answer she was looking for. Come on, Tom. What do you like most about working at Perkins Observatory? Think.
My favorite moments were during the early days when I was working totally alone. I was in a state of constant exhaustion. Some months I worked over 100 hours a week doing the programs, laboring over Perkins paper work, writing this column and the Perkins newsletter, fundraising, teaching classes and grading papers.
But it was all worth it when I stood alone with those 90 eager third-graders. Each one trepedaciously approached the telescope in the semi-darkness. And as the light from the planet Saturn and its rings, illuminated their eyeballs, I often heard this sweet music: the sharp inhalation of breath and then the slow exhalation: “Oh … wow.”
Then they almost invariably asked, “Is it real?”
My lips answered, “You betcha,” but my mind answered, “Just as real as what you are feeling now.”
Now I ask you, is there anything on this good Earth better than that?
With moments like that in mind, I was finally ready to answer her question. As I looked into those clear, brown eyes, I knew I had to say, “Right now. Doing this. Talking with you. Telling you how beautiful the universe is. Sharing with you the love I have for it.”
And I won’t stop doing that. I just won’t be getting paid for it.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.