Last night we went stargazing with Bob and Ed at the Allegheny Observatory. In addition to filling our ears with awkward sounds we all assumed they would classify as information and light humor, they let us stand on a rickety, 60-ish-year-old mobile staircase and look through the good old Fitz-Clark Refractor telescope and into the out-of-this-world. We all took turns taking peeks at Venus, which looked like a very yellow version of the moon waning, Saturn, which looked unbelievably like a pale gray model of what I assume more or less everyone saw/sees/would see in a 1960s book about the solar system, and the exploding star M-57.
It all seemed fake enough that we began to suspect that when Ed and Bob had switched the lenses on the telescope they had done so because each of those lenses had the desired images painted on the other side, which would pretty much guarantee that everyone who put his or her eye up to the scope would see what was to be seen and go away happy. Scam or no scam, all were allowed to interact with the 150-year-old telescope free of charge. And I have to admit that I was more than a little impressed to hear that the man who discovered that the rings of Saturn were composted of particles, a true gentleman named J. Keeler, had made that discovery both in Pittsburgh and with that very telescope.
I soon caught myself longing for the days when mankind cared about stars and could readily admire them (without being stymied by light pollution) and make up crazy stories about them. I almost wanted to be on an ancient Greek ship, or something similar. Then I realized that we still care about stars and planets - to the point of spending BILLIONS of dollars every year just for NASA programs - and we still make up bizarre stories about outer space - heaven only knows how much money goes into creating, packaging, and selling them - and in the end I just kind of felt overwhelmed and confused and didn't know what to think (but I'm pretty sure I was still romanticizing over the ancient Greeks et al.) . However, if in the next year one of the other planets comes into view in our not-so-starry skies, I'll be going back to the observatory for sure.