“Why are you so interested in astronomy?”

This fall, I decided to take a non-credit course called “Hubble to Hubble” – an idea course on a bit of the history of astronomy, focusing (as you’ve probably guessed) on the contributions of Edwin Hubble and much later of the Hubble Space Telescope. There was more about the discoveries of other astronomers leading up to Hubble, and a fair bit about the development of the HST. (The instructor likes stories – a lot – and was on a team developing the Fine Guidance Sensors for the HST.)

After our second observing session last Saturday evening (the last meeting for the class), Paul – the instructor – asked me how I became interested in “all of this {hand-wave gesture}.” I answered that the main thing was probably some of the images coming from Hubble when I was first in college, like the teal and fiery orange image of the Swan (Omega) Nebula taken in 1999 and released in 2003.†

Swan Nebula (a.k.a. Omega Nebula), M17, 2003 HST & WFPC2 // NASA, ESA & J.Hester (ASU)

Of course, that’s not all there is to it. I remember, vaguely, visiting a planetarium many years ago, and loving it. It was so pretty and so unknown. There was my brother’s obsession with outer space, which meant that we had books on the planets for me to peruse (how could it be so cold on the outer planets? how could their years be so much longer than ours?). Halley’s comet last appeared in our sky in 1986, too early for me to remember, but I recall someone mentioning it – I think it was late one trip to or from Kansas, while we were staring out the windows of our car at a multitude of stars, perhaps at Orion the Hunter. It would be some 70 years before we got another chance to see the comet, an unimaginably long time to me then. (Interestingly, it comes around about every 76 years, and I will be 76 years old the next time it appears, in 2061.) I have many reasons to be interested, many people to blame. 😉

Still, I loved that IMAX film with the beavers, that we saw in Chicago, as much as the planetarium, loved dinosaur flashcards as much as planet books. And did you know, I share my birthday with Victor Hugo and two of America’s national parks – the Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons. I love fiction, and I am jealous of the camera used by Ansel Adams and of my cousin for her collection of fossils and semiprecious stones which she found herself. (You wouldn’t believe the trophy amethyst in a display case in her hall.) I envy, too, those who work with the warmth, the blanket of vitality and tangibility enjoyed by biology, chemistry or geology here on the solid ground of our home world.

† Come to think of it, wasn’t that just after I learned about Julian fractals and fractal art via Google’s honorary image late in my freshman year (and I somehow found the Hubble images while surfing for fractals)? Around the same time that I spent a weekend fuming at Coca-Cola for human rights violations at its bottling plants in South America, and another weekend crying for joy or hopelessness or the recognition of a family I didn’t know I had in Phi Beta Kappa? (I think my first college lost me as soon as I found those ΦBK speech transcripts, even if it took me two years to leave…)

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