Friday, September 10, 2004

Resistance is Futile

Having been born in the 1950's, I grew up in what was then called "The Space Age." My grandparents, all of whom in the 1950's were about the age I am now, had been born at "The Dawn of Aviation." (In fact, my mother's parents were born before that certain day at Kitty Hawk).

Just before I started school, the nation was convulsed by self-doubt and racked by intense debate over its educational system--angst brought on by the Soviets' launch of an artificial Earth satellite called Sputnik. When I was in second grade, the new President, John F. Kennedy, spoke of a "New Frontier" for America to explore and set a goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. No surprise that I grew up wanting to an astronaut. The defining issues of the 1960's were sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, civil rights, Vietnam and "The Space Race," approximately in that order.

In a 1969 television interview, I told a reporter (I was 15--what was I doing on TV?) that I intend to study "relativistic astrophysics" in college. I understood that discipline to be a branch of science in which astronomers peer back through time across the vastness of space in search of clues to the origins of the universe. I could imagine no greater vocation. Just a few weeks after that interview, the lunar module Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their footsteps in the dust of celestial history. (Decades later, I found myself with Armstrong and Aldrin in the dust of a field at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on the day after my grandmother's 101st birthday).

I am not an astronomer today. Yet, every day I peer back through time across the vastness of humanity in search of clues to a universal mystery. Some days, I detect faint familial objects orbiting around known relatives; the newly discovered points of light gently re-shaping the common understandings of the family galaxy. Other days I find nothing but more darkness. On other days, my persistence is rewarded with the appearance of previously unimagined clusters of stars pulling me toward them for great exploratory adventures. For me, like my almost-colleagues in astronomy, entreaties of that nature are not to be denied. . . .

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