I work with unimaginable numbers. Distances, objects, spaces so large the numbers themselves lose meaning and can only be expressed by ridiculous comparison. The planet Jupiter has a mass of 1898600000000000000000000000 kilograms. Count the zeroes in that. Did you count twenty three zeroes? Is it possible for any of us to imagine the difference between twenty-two zeroes and twenty-three zeroes in the mass of Jupiter? The tendency is to describe objects relative to the Earth standard. Jupiter is as massive as 317.8 Earths. Volumetrically speaking, it’s more than 1300 Earths. The Sun is about a thousand times bigger than that. These figurative devices only help us speak of these numbers. For the most part the celestial bodies remain outside the scope of our imaginations.
The children can’t be led up the mountain path. They have to be herded, gently pushed from behind with constant reminders to keep moving or stay together. If they were allowed to break formation the orderly pace would be broken, gaps would open up. We would teeter on the brink of chaos. The way back down will be worse because gravity will provide momentum and I’ll be out front this time, trying to hold them back. I will be the dam, trying not to burst.
We’re almost to the top when one child asks how far away is the moon? I tell her that if we drove there it would be like driving around the Earth nine times. She doesn’t look impressed. I tell her that we would have to stack seventy thousand Sears Towers on top of one another to reach the moon. She tells me that the Sears Tower isn’t the Sears Tower any more. It’s Willis Tower now. Right, I say, I just got so used to the old name and sometimes I forget.
The trail is long and steep but I don’t get winded anymore. The exercise is the real reason why I volunteer for guide duty, as opposed to the fake reason that I tell people which is that I love children. Children do not affect me emotionally, but I am a fat fat fatty. I am 1.674 x 10-22 Earths. That’s hyperbole, of course, but my silhouette is definitely far too globe-like. So I hike up and down the mountain herding children and pointing out all the constellations to them. I usually end up explaining more about classical mythology than I do about astronomy. Zeus was mean. Hercules was strong. Perseus and seemingly everyone he knew ended up in the sky.
Looking for constellations reminds me of a photo I have in a frame on my desk of Mercury and Venus aligned with the Moon. Attached to the frame by hanger wire are three Styrofoam balls arranged, not to scale, in the same relative positions as Mercury, Venus, and the Moon in the photo. They appear to be completely askew unless you lay down by the door and cock your head to the side. The point is that constellations are illusions of perspective. The stars in Orion’s belt are not fixed in space at a certain distance from Earth. The one on the left is 800 light years from here; the one in the middle 1340 light years; the one on the right is 915 light years away. In Latin America they’re called the Three Marys but in other pockets of the world they’re known as Peter’s Staff. From almost any other point in the galaxy these stars would not seem to be associated at all.
Dr. Gable is on the viewing platform tonight, reading something on his phone. While the kids are taking pictures I sneak away and join him. Hiya Jack, I say. He does not look up from his phone but acknowledges me with a wave. Dr. Gable is the Director General of the observatory here and its three sister facilities. Inside there are thirty year old photos of him at the dedication that show a scrawny geek with a slouch and a mess of curly hair. He has aged gracefully, the slouch replaced by admirable posture, the hair is grey now and cut close. I once saw him smoke a pipe.
“Why do I feel like astronomy isn’t important to people anymore?” he asks suddenly. “They might think it’s interesting, but never important. It used to be important.” I shrug and suggest that maybe people understand it better than they used to, find it easier to accept as a matter of fact. It doesn’t have as much newness as it used to, I say. “It’s all about the sub-atomic now,” he says. “Micro, not macro. Nobody’s interested in the big picture.” I nod and we sit in silence for a moment before he turns his attention back to the phone. I don’t want to tell him that even I have become disinterested in astronomy. What I actually believe is not that people understand it any better than they used to but that they better understand how little they understand it. The big picture is not interesting because it is too big. We can’t see the edges. Not that the sub-atomic is any better defined. Inner space is just as infinite as outer. Its edges are just as far out of view.
The children have stopped gazing and are forming little groups now, giggling at each other. I tell them it’s time to go and ask them to follow me back down the mountain. Please stay behind me, I say.