Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The enchantment of nebulae

In a recent Post I mentioned a childhood friend whose father worked for Bell.
Jean Ellen (for that was her name) was my own age and went to school with me.  Her mother, who may have been mentally unsound (well, my father thought so) talked with my mother on the phone, sometimes for more than an hour at a time, but whether her talk was beyond my mother's comprehension or incomprehensible per se, I do not know.  I never met her father, but Jean Ellen said that he worked "for Bell".  I had the impression that her access to a telescope, her maps of the heavens, her vocabulary were from her father.
Other little girls might hide under the covers with flashlights to conceal their discussion of what they surmised about boys, but when I was invited to overnight at her house it was astronomy, such as was known in 1944, that we talked about.  Remember that the Mt. Wilson telescope was still new, was in My Weekly Reader, was in Life magazine (though the 200" Hale telescope at Palomar was delayed until 1949), but Jean Ellen was far more interested and well informed than I was.
The thing that I came to wonder most about was the nature of nebulae.  We knew, of course, from the dictionary that the word meant just "cloud", but by 1944 it was known that they were spiral (we did not know that they were not uniformly so), and I remember Jean Ellen's telling me that they might be whole galaxies like our Milky Way.  I also remember (and there was little science fiction worthy of the name at that time) that there might be other stars with planets, but, owing to their being so distant, probably unknowable.
So, whether her father worked for Bell Labs or just for the Telephone Company, through him and his very bright daughter, a goodly part of my mental curiosity was established for life.  It was not as if there were anything beyond a National Geographic sky map then to learn from.  I mean, one was prepared to mock Buck Rogers, for sure!  There was no television, no serious documentaries and no dream, even, of IT permitting me to communicate my childhood's initiations to persons on several continents almost in real time.  Once, in Berkeley, Jean Ellen who was then in Hawaii, came by for a brief visit, but we never again became closely acquainted, no longer children.
I remember the 1944 thoughts about nebulae whenever NOVA, for example, has programs about telescopes and "the edges of the universe".  For, naturally, I could never imagine a simply finite universe, once the reality of galactic nebulae had been grasped.  And whenever a new telescope is announced and then put to work, you can find me at the NASA site.  One knows that the color is digitally induced though it expresses, so to speak, real differentions.  More annoying is the very predictable one-point perspective and telescopic (in the non-scientific sense) action and, worst of all, the awfully uniform speed of these animated reconstructions, very obviously revealing the speed of the digital processors and network servers that were employed.  Also, there is the dreadful background "music" or echoic soundtrack.  Ickypoo!  These things, like the 'period' costumes and 'period' mimicry of light are very serious distractions from science.
I may be too old to tire my eyes and find time enough to learn the subject properly, but I doubt whether I am the only person to be annoyed by the extraneous stuff, and the young woman scientist who obviously has been repeatedly photographed and recorded making a statement off a teleprompter--and other such debasements of the material.
Not that I ought to gripe about NOVA.  I am indeed grateful, but...
And no youngster now has much excuse for not knowing at least what I do.  I, too, had to fight to listen to the NBC Symphony or the Metropolitan Opera when there was a major sports event at the same hour; I wasn't the one who bought the radio or paid the electricity.  I am sure that in many, many families, just as the parents work themselves weary for their children, the sacrifice may not extend to the things most important to their young.  It is understandable, just one of the facts of life that are mastered during the early adolescent years.