Poignant “Astronomy Lesson” for Boys

“The boys edge closer, shoulder
to shoulder now, sad Ptolemies,
the older looking up, the younger
as he thinks back straight ahead
into the black leaves of the maple
where the street lights flicker
like another watery skein of stars.”

Alan R. Shapiro, excerpt from “Astronomy Lesson”

The long goodbye
Product of a dying star, planetary nebula NGC 6565 as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Matej Novak

Long ago, the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy* asserted our Earth sits at the center of a cosmic sphere. He was brilliant but he was wrong. Despite Ptolemy’s considerable scholastic accomplishments, today he is generally regarded as the guy who led humanity down a cosmological path that dead-ended in the Dark Ages. So when the poet Alan Shapiro seeks to underscore the plight of two boys, exiled to the porch while their parents’ dysfunctional marriage plays out inside the house, he amplifies the adjective “sad” by attaching it to the name Ptolemy.

I strongly recommend Mr. Shapiro’s wonderfully poignant poem, “Astronomy Lesson.” You can read the poem for free at the Poetry Foundation website:

Astronomy Lesson

This poem artfully expresses the vast scales of time, space, and history, without leaving a front porch on a single evening. Shapiro infuses the poem’s psychology with astronomy; however, boyhood angst lies at the core of the verse. The older boy copes with his parents mutual animosity by ruminating on the starry sky and all it holds, from solar winds to dying stars. He shares his scientific knowledge with the younger boy, whose thoughts are simpler but equally reminiscent of outer space.

Another of the poet’s tools is juxtaposition. As you read “Astronomy Lesson,” pay attention to what lies near and what lies far, also what is up and what is back. Never fail to note where light casts itself in relation to darkness. Lastly, never underestimate how powerful are the thoughts of boys passing time on a porch.

“Children of Dalton MC Leod. Fuquay Springs, North Carolina. Sept. 17, 1935,” by Arthur Rothstein, NYPL

*For my thumbnail sketch of Ptolemy, I refreshed my understanding of his career by using the Encyclopedia Britannica App for iPad. The above Rothstein photograph of boys on a porch is evocative of, but unrelated to, Shapiro’s poem.

See no black hole. Hear no black hole?

“Supermassive black holes in the universe are like a raucous choir singing in the language of X-rays. When black holes pull in surrounding matter, they let out powerful X-ray bursts. This song of X-rays, coming from a chorus of millions of black holes, fills the entire sky — a phenomenon astronomers call the cosmic X-ray background.”

Chorus of Black Holes Sings in X-Rays, Whitney Clavin, Caltech

A view from the bustling center of our galactic metropolis. Spitzer Space Telescope offers us a fresh, infrared view of the frenzied scene at the center of our Milky Way, revealing what lies behind the dust.
An X-ray image of the center of the Milky Way galaxy, taken from NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array), is inset in an infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Voracious reader would be an overstatement, but I do consume my share of text-heavy NASA press releases and news stories. (Hey, this is “Lit for Space.” I’m all about text-heavy.) The above quote comes from a NASA JPL News story featuring the NuSTAR mission. What does the NuStar mission entail? Here’s a short video.

NuSTAR’s orbiting pair of telescopes make highly sensitive observations of distant phenomena, especially black holes. Given the mysterious nature of these invisible marvels, how does NASA make black holes comprehensible to non-scientists like myself? Ms. Clavin at Caltech chose a choir analogy. Having many cherished choir memories, I relished this choice.

If you ever attempt to read a technical article from an academic journal, you may wind up with a headache. I did. Such writing comes laden with jargon and complex math. It is an arcane style of communication that, however crucial to science, fails miserably to educate the masses. When informing the tax-paying public who funded the research, the value of a well-crafted analogy becomes apparent.

Scientists Debate on StarTalk Radio

A recent podcast from StarTalk Radio visited the topic of sound analogies. Everybody’s “personal astrophysicist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, took a contrarian position. He did so in reference to gravitational waves, not to be confused with NuSTAR’s choral X-rays. The context was a discussion with scientists involved with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).

Last year, LIGO researchers made the first-ever observation of a gravitational wave. In the resulting publicity, scientists and reporters have, um, gravitated toward sound analogies. Dr. Tyson pushed back against using this literary device.

First, Tyson cited the famous movie tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream.” This quote appeared on posters for the sci-fi classic Alien. It also constitutes a scientifically accurate statement. Sound waves cannot propagate in empty space. Tyson asked, “So why this urge to always analogize it to sound? I think that’s misleading the public.”

Tyson’s objection provoked some fun banter, a specialty of StarTalk broadcasts. Dr. Janna Levin pushed back by saying this: “It’s actually stronger than an analogy. Let’s say two black holes collide. … They will literally ripple the shape of space-time.” Dr. Levin went on to explain how this rippling could, if you were close enough, set your eardrums ringing.

When it comes to sound-based analogies, Levin may be a little biased. She recently published a book called Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outerspace. Now, if you’ve made it this far, I’d like to know what you think.

Questions for Comment

What cosmic analogies have science communicators used to teach you? Why did you, or did you not, find them helpful?

Massimino’s “Spaceman” is all Human

Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the UniverseSpaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve about had it with likable optimists. I mean, they just keep looking on the bright side, sloshing that half-full glass, and touting marginal increases in strength from things that didn’t kill them. And all the while they just keep being likeable. What’s a devout pessimist like me to do?

For me, the answer was to preview astronaut Mike Massimino’s soon-to-be released book “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.” Talk about likeable optimist! As astronauts go, “Mass” is an all-star. He flew on two shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He also excels at popularizing science and engineering, in part through appearing as himself on the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Despite my affinity for pessimism, Massimino’s “Spaceman” won me over. He tends to do that to people.

I’ll spin it with this analogy: Mike Massimino is to Twitter as Neil Armstrong is to the moon. Through social networking and undeniable likability—in addition to intelligence, courage, and hard work—Massimino has fueled popular support for space exploration like few others. His book “Spaceman” tells the story of how he rose from a normal childhood to an extraordinary career within the tightknit yet super-competitive corps of NASA astronauts.

An unabashed fan of “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” Massimino draws on those films to craft a thrilling prologue describing his first launch into space. Yet this book rewards readers with more than just high-flying thrills. Throughout “Spaceman,” Massimino incorporates elements of history, politics, culture, and human nature to craft a fascinating and engrossing narrative. The result is a complete and balanced picture of his journey, often humorous, in the tradition of good old-fashioned page-turners.

Speaking candidly, like Massimino often does, the most thrilling passages for me involved the author’s struggles to pass NASA’s eye exam. NASA rejected Massimino three times before he finally made it into the astronaut program. Similar to watching “Apollo 13,” I found myself tense up witnessing just how close Massimino came to being rejected by NASA (a fourth and final time). As a pessimist, I often fret about how obsessed we humans are with stories fixated on simple If questions. With Massimino’s thought-provoking adventure, I am heartened to observe a publisher—and soon readers—embrace a story focused on the richer questions of Why and How.

As I read how Massimino overcame his ocular limitations, I noticed a parallel with Hubble Space Telescope’s own visual impairment. Both suffered from flawed lenses. Frankly, Hubble and Massimino had every right to fail. Yet they both succeeded. Delicately orchestrated planning combined with dogged effort enabled both the man and the machine to overcome their initial sight defects.

The word “human” shows up often in “Spaceman.” Attributing this to a writer in need of a thesaurus would be a mistake. As Massimino worked his way through the academic ranks of engineers, he labored in a specialized topic called “human factors.” I’ll let the man holding a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering explain it. “Anytime you get in your car and you can work the brakes and the steering wheel and read the speedometer and not drive off the road in confusion, that’s because an engineer who understands human factors designed it for you.”

“Spaceman” succeeds because of Massimino’s keen sense of human factors. The result is a book capable of satisfying a wide range of readers in addition to space enthusiasts like myself. In a conversational manner, “Spaceman” relates the remarkable journey of an eager kid from Long Island who made it all the way to 350 miles above the Earth’s surface. There he repaired arguably the most important science instrument ever built. The risks, the costs, the times NASA came up tragically short, are discussed with candor. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment is one of optimism steeped in gratitude and faith for human potential.

I strongly recommend “Spaceman” by Mike Massimino for optimists, pessimists, and of course, for all the starry-eyed young men and women who currently dream of Mars. Explorers like Massimino remind us how fantastic an adventure life can be, no matter how unlikely success may seem.

DISCLAIMER: Jake received a complimentary advance “Uncorrected Proof” copy of “Spaceman” from Crown Publishers.

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