Walking back from our traditional Friday lunch we started talking about the stars. Not the celebrities, but those of the celestial variety. And planets.

I remember growing up in Cleveland Heights — with all the light pollution and everything — getting a Celestron telescope (I think it’s a Celestron, but might be mistaken). Regardless of the brand it was a little 4-inch refracting scope that came with a wooden tripod and had a little spotting scope affixed to the side.

I knew nothing of optics at the time and thought of the magic of the Barlow lens (1.4x) to make things even bigger. Stacked with the 2x teleconverter I thought I could see all sorts of things. Honestly, misalignments and other aberrations led to many a star looking like the classic drawing of a quasar.

But the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter were certainly within reach. The double star on the handle of the big dipper as well.

Seeing things far away. Knowing how much there is out there. Feeling the lack of significance of us in the universe is a powerful thing to a 12 year old. Couple that with the idea of learning, of possibly finding things out about what’s out there. Diving into the unknown to find the other side.

I don’t think many kids today (not to sound like “kids today”) have the gift of sitting outside in the cold with their dad and get a sense of amazement at the universe. People are too busy indoors. Watching things. Being entertained.

– = –

I remember the time I was visiting a friend at Caltech when I was just out of high school. The Perseid meteor shower was coming up that weekend and we all took a drive out to the Mojave desert to see it. We drove for a few hours out of LA and stopped. We turned off the headlights and walked out.

Looking up in the desert, miles from any man-made light, for the first time I saw the Milky Way. Plain as day it was glowing at me. I had never seen it from all the city lights. That first sight is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

We drove back to campus.

A stone’s throw from JPL.