Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stargazing With My Boy

GuillotineBig Cuter and I stayed up really really late last night.  The moon was waxing gibbous (growing larger and more than half lit) so we had to wait for it to set before we could see the Geminids meteor shower.  We played Guillotine for hours, and, for the first time in a long time I had a 4 game winning streak.  Suddenly it was 4-1 and he decided that we should play "best of 11" and promptly won 6 in a row.  How he does this is a mystery which, I surmise, will remain unsolved until the end of time.  I'm going along nicely, slamming him with cards that will cost him points and turns and opportunities, and then, in the blink of an eye, with the shuffling of the deck, with the movement of the planets around the sun, he beats the crap out of me.  I'd have been sad except that I had those 4 winners in a row bolstering my ego and because I love him.  TBG had  been long a-bed when he triumphed that 6th and final time, so his celebration had to be non-verbal.  It was certainly not peaceful.  Arms were raised, fists were clenched, smiles were stamped on his face and a little bit of chair-dancing ensued.  If we are only as happy as our unhappiest child, and since Little Cuter is still freezing herself while working and schooling in Chicago, I took pleasure in my son's delight.  He may be 20-something, but when he wins he's still my little boy.  Come over and play with us sometime and you'll see what I mean.

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.

Basin and RangeFrom 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 was very expensive had extensive resources and the kids were able to do experiments that proved the veracity of the stuff that makes up our world.  Or at least I think that that was what he was trying to teach me.  I was trying to follow his description of how calculus describes the physical world, of how and why we need to measure the spaces beneath curves (feeling pretty proud of myself that I knew what a sine wave looked like), but it was late and I was tired and there were meteors shooting in the sky above me.  It was hard to take my eyes off the stars to watch his hands describe the concepts, and holding them in my head without paper and pencil was a challenge.  So we moved on.

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.


  1. This was Mother Heaven!

    And the skies in Arizona are the biggest in the country. Barefoot? Eat your heart out, Tallahassee.

    You're right. I wish I'd been there.

  2. Barefoot? Heart duly consumed, South Carolina. :)

    This is not only Mother Heaven but Pop Science Fan Heaven. Anyone who can breezily (and yes, convincingly) cite anything by John McPhee in a report about full-hearted sky-gazing -- that's someone to keep my eye on. (Well, all right, if you insist, I will look up at the constellations every now and then.) Reading Basin and Range aloud on a cross-country road trip?!? Woof!

    But ye gods, does this make me NJ-December-homesick. Nothing to do with science or skywatching, either. Sigh...

    There's a passage in The One-Minute Manager where he talks about knowing who your best employees are, just from listening to them talk about their work. They can't wait to share with you -- with someone! with everyone! -- how cool it is when they do [whatever]. Their excitement makes their faces glow, their eyes shine, they shake their heads and laugh. It's got nothing to do with the fact that they're telling you -- which would be the case with simple boasting -- and everything to do with what they're telling you about, and how it makes them feel.

    When I was moving from apprentice to journeyman programmer, I once worked on a small but intensely interesting problem with a guy who'd been around for probably a dozen years more, and was something of a geek legend in the IT department where we worked. His name was Mike. We bounced ideas back and forth -- I kept trying to ignore (with mixed success) that I was talking this way! with! Mike! -- and cobbled together a test of an idea which would be very simple to implement but dramatic, unequivocal, in its success or failure. Back then, early '80s, we used typewriter-like terminals without screens; they were fed by rolls of thermal-sensitive paper. One of the most remarkable things I've ever experienced (in any job, in life, in the life of the mind) happened when Mike hit the Enter key on his terminal, and it started to make that classic ptt-tttt-tt-tttt-ttt muffled-machine-gun noise it made and the roll of paper went crazily unspooling across his desktop, line after line of exactly what we wanted to see... That sight alone was cool enough, gratifying certainly, but what is really burned into my head is the sight of this nerdish guy (skinny, bad skin, black-rimmed thick glasses, somewhat greasy blond hair, rumpled dress shirt and tie and pants) LEAPING to his feet, throwing his hands into the air, practically clapping his hands and saying loudly, over and over (as neighboring programmers stood up in their own cubicles and looked at him, and grinned fondly -- at him, at me, at one another): It's working! It's working! It's working...!

    In that ten, fifteen, twenty seconds was slain forever -- for me -- the idea that the joy of programming came from private, highly focused acts of intellect. I suspect that young Master Big Cuter is learning the same type of unofficial lessons about his chosen profession. It's like that moment when the chief explorer (Carter? I forget) first shone a flashlight into King Tut's tomb: the person behind him asked, "What do you see?" and Carter (?) sort of gasped and said something like, "I see things -- WONDROUS things!" I get all teary-eyed not just at the mother-son moment, but at the memory of my own shining-flashlight moment(s), and seeing it happen in someone else.

    Good for Big Cuter and good, so good, for Mom.

    (The other thing I remember about Mike, btw, was this button he had pinned to the felt-like fabric wall of his cubicle: "BE ALERT! The World Needs More Lerts." Ha!)

  3. Yes, NANCE, it was a mom-heaven moment. Sometimes it's really obvious why I had children in the first place :)

    I had a Mike moment, JES, when I saw your comment; I am so glad this widget works better for you. Along the lines of Mike and Carter (?), do you know the story of the blind monk who invented champagne? He called to his colleagues saying "Come quickly! I am drinking stars!" Gotta say, that was how I felt on Monday night.


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