Looking back over my life, I note the years 1969 and 1970 as high-water marks of my early fascination with astronomy.
In 1969 there was Apollo 11, and I was “over the moon” the whole time. I remained glued to the television set, watching recap after recap as nothing new happened for hour after hour.
That, plus memorizing Tang™ commercials.
I watched the first moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. In the minutes before he climbed down the ladder, I remember thinking “No one has ever set foot on the moon,” so I could ever afterward say that I’d been able to say that once!
That fall we moved to Long Island and I ‘discovered’ the Big Dipper while my father and younger brother were throwing a football around.
In early 1970 there were two wonders: Bennett’s Comet and the near-total solar eclipse in New York. The comet was magnificent, tiny but undeniably a bright, bushy comet, high over the trees across the road in front of our house.
The drawing above is one of a set I made, almost certainly that spring–our first spring in Port Washington. The pictures I still have run from Jupiter to Neptune…a personal guide to the solar system. Except for Saturn, which is a consistent yellow with one thin ring, the colors are quite fanciful, though the planet sizes are remarkably proportional.
By the end of that fourth grade year I could recite the constellations of the zodiac in order, with their approximate (i.e., common superstitious) dates. (I am “officially” a Sagittarius, but was born squarely in the middle of the six days each year when the sun is unquestionably in Scorpio, close to Antares.)
Antares: not only “the adversary of Mars,” but also “substitute for Mars,” or even “fool’s Mars.” I like to call it that–it can easily fool the observer. It’s hardly “opposite to Mars,” anti- in the geographical sense (Antarctic, Antipodes), as it lies just below the ecliptic–hence the ease with which its bright, reddish self can be mistaken for the planet of war.
Anyway, I wasn’t tried for heresy by my poky Catholic school in the suburbs. Religion and science aren’t at odds, though people with bad attitude can certainly be at odds. Fools’ Mars–false alarms, all of them. As Addison wrote in his magnificent, courageous paraphrase of the 19th Psalm:
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice or sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found?
In Reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”
I have come to think that the following year, fifth grade, is when I dropped out of school– not literally, of course, and not forever. Somehow, that has to do with science. As I plow through another decade of my life, I plan to work on this conundrum.