While I was in graduate school, my mind was not entirely devoted to literary studies, I am embarrassed to say. I built a series of larger and larger telescopes, selling each to create the next one.
But a genuinely giant telescope eluded me. So I saved my lunch money for just over a year until I could afford the optics for a telescope with a 17.5-inch-diameter mirror. By the standards of the time, the ‘scope would be the biggest amateur telescope on the block.
Then I waited for over a year for the overworked optician to finish my mirror.
It arrived on a Thursday in late spring. In a mad frenzy of sawing and sanding, I completed the telescope in two days. By Saturday night, the ‘scope, still reeking with the smell of paint, was set up on the hilltop observing site of the Richland Astronomical Society.
The telescope, which I had dubbed “Prometheus,” wasn’t much to look at. It resembled a blunderbuss cannon.
Short and squat and about my height, it only vaguely resembled a telescope. I had to stand on tiptoes to reach the eyepiece when I pointed the telescope straight up.
Prometheus had no motor drives to follow an object as it moved across the sky. I had to keep it pointed by giving the massive thing hard nudges. As John Dobson, the creator of the telescope’s design, had put it, telescopes like mine were “yogurt powered. I power it, and I eat a lot of yogurt.”
I was in a caffeine- and telescope-induced frenzy of exhaustion and anticipation.
As the members of the Richland club gathered around me, I contemplated the first astronomical object that the telescope would help me see.
The choice was not a trivial one. Telescopists, amateur and professional alike, have sanctified the moment by giving it a unique name. What then would be the telescope’s “First Light”?
This time of year, the choice is obvious.
The constellation Hercules has the privilege of containing the most beautiful astronomical object in our northern-hemisphere sky, the Great Globular Star Cluster.
To find it, I first had to find the constellation. You can take that journey with me. After evening twilight, look high in the eastern sky for the very bright star Vega. West of Vega is a large, rough square of stars called the Keystone, which makes up the trunk of Hercules’ body. His upraised arms stretch south, and his legs are to the north.
I found the two stars on the west side of the Keystone. About 1/3 of the way up from the north-most star, I saw in my finderscope, which gave me the binocular view, a small, fuzzy, round patch, marked as M13 on most star charts.
I finally centered it. A blur. Disappointment, then relief. Out of focus. I focused.
“Oh, yeah,” I breathed. “Hubba, hubba.” A wave of nervous laughter erupted from my more-experienced onlookers.
Words fail me here as they failed me then. In a telescope, M13 looks like a globe of stars, dense with countless points of light at the center and slowly becoming sparser as your eye moves outward. It looks like a giant swarm of fireflies or a pile of diamond dust dumped on black velvet, with so many stars piled on top of stars that it is impossible to count them.
As my beloved astronerd friends crowded around the telescope impatiently waiting their turn, the talk turned to globular star clusters, of which M13 is a prime example.
Galaxies like the Milky Way started as giant amorphous clouds of mostly hydrogen gas. As gravity causes the cloud to collapse slowly, the cloud condenses into a swirling, lens-shaped disk with spiral arms like a child’s pinwheel. Small denser portions within the swirling disk condensed over time into the 300 billion stars of the Milky Way.
But some patches of gas are left behind in the collapse. They form into balls of stars called globular clusters — hundreds of thousands of stars that together orbit around the main galactic disk like bees hovering around a hive.
If the disk of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, is like a city, then globular clusters are like the small rural towns surrounding the city. M13 is Columbus’s Pataskala or Pickerington.
The stars in those globular clusters are tightly packed. The sun’s section of the Milky Way is far from its dense core. The stars in our relatively sparse region average about seven light-years from each other, and one light-year is about six trillion miles.
Reduce the sun to the size of a bowling ball, and Earth would be a peppercorn about 30 paces away. The nearest star, Proxima Centauri, would be another bowling ball 5,000 miles away in Germany or Hawaii.
The stars in a globular cluster average about 1/3 of a light-year from each other. The sky from a planet inside a globular cluster would glow with the power of hundreds of thousands of stars.
Life was good at that moment of first light, as good as life could get for a budding astronerd.
But exhaustion crept from my eyes and through my body until I could barely stand up. So as other, more-experienced astronerds jostled their way to the eyepiece, I staggered nearby to a wet patch of cool grass and fell almost instantly into a coma-like sleep.
As I drifted off, my last, incoherent thoughts concerned, of all things, an old science fiction story by Isaac Asimov. In “Nightfall,” Asimov imagines a planet orbiting one of the stars in a six-star system.
At least one of the stars is always above the horizon. As a result, the planet’s inhabitants never experience nighttime. They know nothing of the larger universe that surrounds them.
Every 2,000 years, all the suns set for a short time, and the planet’s residents briefly experience the darkness of true night. In the story, that tumultuous event is about to happen.
Astronomers view that moment with great anticipation, but their joy is tempered with fear. Every 2,000 years, society has collapsed into anarchy, and they have to start their growth toward civilization all over again. What was it about the brief night that triggered the collapse of civilization?
Night falls. From a dark, rural vantage point on Earth, 2,000 stars dot the sky. It’s enough to make any observer feel small by comparison.
The residents of Asimov’s planet have never had even that experience. Their universe was tiny, with its few stars and planets.
The rest of the more expansive universe was hidden by the light of those stars and an oppressive blanket of atmosphere that captured that light. They were blind to the great darkness that lay beyond that small realm — until the night finally fell upon them like a hammer blow.
Imagine their amazement when they discovered that their planet orbits one of six stars at the center of a globular cluster. Imagine their shock when their night sky was crowded with 200,000 stars.
With those thoughts rumbling incoherently in my head, I finally awoke two hours later. A few stray astronerds remained on the hilltop, but they were now occupied with their own telescopes.
Reconciled to the need to find M13 again, I staggered up to Prometheus and looked into the eyepiece. It was still in the field of view!
Notwithstanding their preoccupation with their own telescopes, one or the other of my beloved friends had wandered over to my telescope and re-centered M13.
“Thanks, buddies,” I whispered into the darkness as I observed that pile of diamond dust for many long minutes. As I did so, I thought of distant planets and skies overflowing with uncountable stars.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.