We had the Sky Spy article from the Arizona Daily Star next to us on the kitchen table, which is how we knew about the waxing gibbosity of the moon and the fact that it was going to set "a little before 1am on Tuesday, giving dark skies until near sunrise at 7:12. For a while, it seemed that I was going to crash and have to set my alarm for 5am to see the streaks in the sky. But a Coca-Cola propped me up and the beautiful night drew me out to the lawn chairs just a little bit after 1:00. Big Cuter was wearing socks and shoes and sweatpants and a t-shirt and a hoodie; I was barefoot in a t-shirt and jeans. We were each wrapped in a giant comforter, lying on our backs, staring straight up at the sky. It was heavenly.
After several summer stints at Aviation Challenge, Big Cuter was able to identify many of the constellations and stars twinkling above us. Of course, the Geminids are named for Gemini the Twins, a constellation which neither of us could find. The sky is big and surrounding and we were worried that we were looking in the wrong direction when all of a sudden there was movement that started and stopped just overhead. We both "Oooo"- ed and smiled and relaxed back into the experience. Every 30 or 40 seconds we'd see flashes of light moving quickly away from the Gemini Twins.... or where we assumed the Twins were hiding. Sometimes they were long, sometimes they were quick, but they were always fabulous.
One of the things that irritates me is the fact that the light that we see as representing the stars themselves actually represents the stars as they were millions and billions of years ago. I want to see what they look like now; I don't like the fact that what I'm seeing happened ages ago. I live in the here and now, why can't the stars? I made my nephew laugh when I told him this last year; Big Cuter was merely surprised. He loves the fact that he is experiencing John McPhee's concept of Deep Time , albeit on a celestial rather than a geological plane. The notion that he can see what happened eons ago appeals to him. It just freaks me out.
From deep time, a concept I first brought to his attention while reading Basin and Range aloud on a road trip from Chicago to Ithaca when he was 8, we moved on to the nature of light and space and relativity and time. He began to school me, and I loved it.
He took physics his junior year in high school, and once the senior slackers left in May to do their we've-gotten-into-college-and-we-can't-sit-in-a-classroom-anymore-internships for the last 6 weeks of classes the teacher was free to explore the more brain stretching pieces of the curriculum with the 4 remaining students - all juniors who were going on to bigger and better and harder math and science classes in the fall. I think that my mental skills are more in tune with those slacking seniors than with the kids who were going on to AP Physics and BC Calculus, but that didn't stop Big Cuter from sharing the knowledge that Tucker put in his brain. Sometimes the rewards of paying for an education come back to shower you with joy a decade later. This was one of those nights.
He noted that chemistry might make the biggest explosions, but physics had the coolest toys. The school
The fact that light is both a wave and a particle is something that has astounded me since I heard about it. Lorentz's Contraction and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the fact that the simple act of observation can make something be other than what it is when unobserved .... we covered it all. He told me about the wonderfulness of taking advanced calculus and advanced physics at the same time, about how the one informed the other and made them both more marvelous. We laughed about experiments shooting nerf darts onto cd racks and remembered the smart kids who shared the experience with him. Every once in a while I'd glance over at his face, which was alive with the wonder and the excitement of the intellectual challenge of explaining the cosmos to his science-challenged maternal unit. I stayed with him through most of it, but I still have a few sticking points.
For example, my puny 3-dimensional brain has a hard time understanding how time and space can be the same thing, but not really. He unwrapped himself enough to use his blanket as an exemplar of the warping of space by mass, as if that would make it clearer. I've seen similar descriptions on The Discovery Channel's science shows, and while I can retell it to you quite cogently, I haven't the vaguest idea of what it really means. I never got past page 43 of A Brief History of Time; he took it along as vacation reading. Our conversation covered warp drive and worm holes and the Twin Conundrum (where the twin shot into space ages more slowly than his earthbound sibling) and every once in a while I thought I caught a glimpse of understanding. Newton and Einstein and the confluence of equations and the physical world bring him great joy. He likes knowing how things work, feels comforted by the fact that there is order to the universe and that that order can be found in mathematics. He loves to share his facts.
He's a perfect teacher - he sighs as he gets to a difficult part and then finds an analogy that will appeal to me. He reassures me that the concepts are spoken of more than they are understood, and that our brains are just not constructed to have easy access to them. I had a little headache but mostly I was suffused with love. To think that this human lived under my heart for 9 months and is now explicating the universe to me under a blanket of down below a blanket of stars .... it warms the cockles of my heart.
True, the Geminid Meteor Shower was marvelous. The real miracle, though, was on the lawn chair next to me.