Dad set the telescope on the driveway. Unfolding, the rickety tripod clanged into position. It wobbled on its feet, slender tube drooping. Dad scanned the sky, looking over the first few stars awakening in the fading light. He knew the major constellations and could recognize several planets, but not much more. This was his first time, too. Hunched over, he lifted the tube aiming into the southern sky and peered into the eyepiece.
Watching, I waited. He nudged the scope, turned a knob at the base of the eyepiece. Looking at the sky, I saw a bright gleam floating in the deep azure. I asked him what he was looking at. Head bobbing, he switched between peering down the length of the tube and into the eyepiece. He adjusted a knob. Rising up, he stepped back. Slinking up to the instrunment, I followed directions. Nearly the same height as the telescope, I only had to lean over a bit to peer into the tiny opening at the back. A shining blob caught my eye. It wiggled within the view as I wobbled on my feet.
“It’s Saturn,” he said.
I had seen photographs of Saturn in a magazine. The blob inside the telescope appeared nothing like the planet on the glossy pages. I gazed at something shaped more like a squished ball. Holding my breath, keeping still, I gazed into the eyepiece. The slender oval drifted sideways. And I saw it. The tips on either side of the round center were rings. Staring at it, details emerged. Nearly lost in a blur, two specks of darkness marked the space between the rings on either side of the planet. Peering up, I looked at the bright gem in the sky. Saturn, I thought.
Realizing destinations filled the sky, the world expanded around me. The hunger took over. I had to know more. Pouring over books at the library, I absorbed it all. But never too much at a time. After each section, each small bite, I thought it over. The numbers and other data became images in my mind. But everything seemed so big. The schoolyard became a scale model, basketball sun at one end and a marble Saturn at the other. Walking from the basketball to the tiny blue plastic bead planet, I imagined the trip. Eight minutes for light, a few less for my feet. Looking back at the basketball, I saw the sun. Peering the other way, beyond the other end of the football field, I spotted where the marble rested in the grass. I saw Saturn. My eyes opened and questions poured in. What kept everything together?
“It’s gravity,” Dad said. Explaining the force holding my feet to the ground, he told me the same force held the planets in orbit. I argued that a force is physical like pulling a wagon. “An invisible force,” he said. It sounded like magic. A good story, but it did not sit well with me. Not one bit.
It never sat well with Newton, according to a book. The implication was in the mathematics tested by observation. But what caused the force? Spinning a bucket over my head held the water inside, but my arm and bucket were real, a physical force. And the book pointed out that Mercury did not play by the rules of the invisible force story. Predictions of positions lost accuracy over time. The problem simmered in my head for years while I read books and thought about other problems. I took small bites, imagined the meanings, asked questions. My skills improved as each answer revealed tougher questions. Sitting in the car while picturing planetary orbits, the answer leaped into my thoughts.
Dad listened to my explanation. I told him that objects followed natural pathways within the fabric of space warped by the objects themselves. Newton’s mathematics relating gravity to a force was only an approximation. Gravity was not a force like twirling a bucket of water. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read,” he said. Wise words, I questioned everything. But his bites of knowledge were less frequent. I was on my own.
A book on relativity, requiring small doses of reading and long hours of imagining, confirmed my suspicion. This different story and its mathematics predicted Mercury with high accuracy. I never shared this with Dad. We talked about comet hunting and viewing planets. Problems twirled through my head as I worked them out on my own. Everyone has their own pace, their own hunger.
In a park after sunset, I set up my new telescope. The heavy instrument whirred on its motors tracking the sky, revealing Saturn in clear detail. No longer a squished ball, the object in the eyepiece appeared much like the photos in the magazine. Within the rings, Cassini’s Division carved a black line. Above the rings, two hazy stripes-cloud belts-crossed the planet. A couple walked up and asked what I was looking at.
“It’s Saturn,” I said. Sometimes folks asked more questions, and I answered them in small handfuls. Knowledge is best served a bite at a time. The couple did not ask any questions, and I only offered instruction on peering into the eyepiece. They marveled at the details, their small bite, and went on their way.
Take small bites, savor each delight.