Tuesday, 21 September 2010

My ultimate passion

I am totally happy. Since I am in my current research trying to figure out how emotions are generated in the brain (in order to figure out why we can relate to fictional characters' emotions), I know that happiness is caused by the brain registering the achievement of a goal. It seems that my whole life had been leading toward a goal achieved yesterday.
When I was a child, I wanted to be an astronomer. My favourite book was Camille Flammarion's Popular Astronomy, hopelessly outdated, but I didn't know it, so it was my Bible and prayer book. It actually reads like a novel. I wanted to join a children's astronomy club, but my mother told me that you had to be ten. When I was ten she told me that I was bad at maths and you had to be good at maths to become an astronomer. So I gave up my dream, but not reading Flammarion and anything I could get hold of. I knew the names of the major asteroids and Jupiter's moons, and I knew how eclipses work and how much a square inch of B Sirius weighs.
My father bought a telescope when I was already grown-up. He was an impulsive buyer (once he bought a sailing boat that he never sailed) so one day when I was visiting he took out the scope, set it up and pointed randomly at a bright star. It happened to be Saturn. This gave me the idea that star gazing was easy. The scope was never used again, and eventually it came to Sweden as a present to my son and was never used there either. Sergej grew up, and the scope moved with him to his own home, waiting for his kids to be old enough to play with it.

When we bought the house in Old School Lane, I noticed quickly how wonderful the night sky was. Not quite as perfect as in Australian deserts, but good enough to start me thinking about the old unwanted scope and how to take it over to England. I happened to mention it to Anton who shares this secret passion of mine, and he said, wise as ever: Why don't you just buy a new, modern telescope if you want one. I wasn't quite ready yet to indulge myself like that, but we went past a shop in King's Parade that had telescopes on display. Some months later, when Julia was visiting we went past this shop again, and the telescope was on sale. She said it was meant to be. I wasn't quite ready yet, but the day after I went and bought it. It came in boxes. I wasn't prepared for this. I thought I would just grab it and point it at the sky and admire Saturn.

It took me some hours to assemble my new toy, and when it was ready it didn't work. I get very upset when things I assemble carefully according to instructions don't work. I put the scope in a corner and waited until Anton came to visit again. He took it out and pointed it at a bright star. It was Saturn. It did not look quite like my memory image of Saturn, but it was a sublime moment. I was preparing for long hours of happy star gazing. I read Astronomy for Dummies. Then Anton left, and I tried looking at the moon and some stars until the laser finder suddenly died. I checked the battery, and I checked this and that, and I put in on my list of urgent things to do.

Now, it so happens that this year, Jupiter comes the closest to Earth since 1963. Jupiter is very bright as it is, but it is exceptionally bright now, and since mid-July it kept looking at me with remorse every night, calling with a voice I cannot explain. One night I took out the scope and tried to point it without a finder. Highly frustrating: you can see the star with a naked eye, but you cannot point at it exactly.

Last week I finally took the broken finder to the shop on King's Parade, only to learn that ordering a new one would take six weeks. And there was Jupiter calling to me. I did something I should have done from start. I bought a new finder from Amazon. It came within two days.

Yesterday I pointed my telescope at Jupiter. I saw a smear of light. Not at all like all those wonderful pictures in astronomy books or on the web. I looked and looked and looked, and it was getting darker and darker, and my eyes adjusted to darkness, just as Astronomy for Dummies predicted, and there it was, with belts and all, and the four moons lined up neatly, just for me.

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