Thursday, May 14, 2009

Journey-work of the Stars

He sat in his wheelchair in front of the computer screen, intently gazing at the brightly colored images before him. A retired space engineer, he is now a hospice patient residing at a local long-term care facility. Only able to speak haltingly and with few words, his frustration is palpable as he seeks to give voice to his brilliant mind. I know that he can't be rushed; that he requires a patient, attentive listening presence, and that given sufficient space, he will share what is on his mind.

This week the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Hubble Space Telescope to replace its batteries and gyroscopes, install two cameras and attempt to repair two broken science instruments. I shared this news with my patient and watched as he became visibly excited, his eyes widening. 

It was then that I wheeled him over to the computer and googled images of deep space captured by the Hubble. He uttered exclamations of awe and delight as I pulled up one image after another--star clusters, spiral galaxies and supernova remnants. For a few moments his frustration was gone and he was alert and attentive with every fiber of his being.

In his blog Science Musings, Chet Raymo, professor emeritus of astronomy and physics at Stonehill College, writes of this sense of awe opened up by the incomprehensibly vast infinitude of space. His conclusion draws us to celebrate the gift of the close-at-hand:

As I calculate it, it would take 16 million Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photographs to cover the entire celestial sphere. At 10,000 galaxies per photograph, we are talking 160 billion galaxies that the same application of technology might potentially reveal.

What I find most astonishing is that a big bus-sized telescope floating in space can be precisely pointed at such a tiny part of the sky during 400 orbits of the Earth. Makes me proud to be part of a species that can pull off such a feat -- a species that includes everyone from the chief project designer to the machinist who cuts widget no. 35, 347.

Having taken aboard a universe of 160 billion galaxies, how would I answer the BIG questions?

Who am I? With Whitman I say: I am the journey-work of stars.

Where did I come from? I am the product of 13.7 billion years of cosmic evolution.

Why am I here? The universe is silent. Each of us must decide for oneself. Some of us choose to take our answer from popes, televangelists, ayatollahs, or holy books. For myself: I am here to pay attention and to celebrate what I see.

And I didn't need the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photograph to come to these conclusions. With Whitman: "...the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren..."

(From Science Musings; February 11,2006; Google Image Photo: Orion Nebula from Hubble Telescope)


Sukie Curtis said...

What a great story, and a great gift that you shared by showing the Hubble photos! Chet's personal "why am I here?" reply just about says it all for me, too: "I am here to pay attention and to celebrate what I see." What more need be said?

Cori Lynn Berg said...

Wish I could have seen the light in his eyes at seeing those photos... thanks for a wonderful story. It makes me think about the people I love and what "puts the stars in their eyes."