I’m not sure exactly where this story begins, but maybe it’s here: Sometime this summer, my mom decided to take an astronomy class. She had taken drama and philosophy classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley and audited a history of theater course. She’d heard that this particular astronomy class was aimed at non-science majors, and that the professor, Alex Filippenko, had won all sorts of teaching awards. She emailed him to see if it was okay for her to sit in – it was – and then convinced a few friends to join her.
Maybe what I should say next is that my mom has never been that interested in science. I actually didn’t know how much she didn’t like it until we talked about it recently. In college, she filled her science requirement with comparative anatomy, a class that required dissecting frogs and cats. “I hated the smell of formaldehyde,” she said. “Dinner was right after that. I just hated it.”
Astronomy had also gotten on her bad list. “Whenever I saw something in the paper about a comet, a supernova—I just didn’t read it. I thought, I’m never going to understand this anyway.”
This class had no formaldehyde, just a professor who has enough astronomy-themed T-shirts to cover three afternoons a week for a whole semester without repeating a shirt. Before each class, he played a piece of music that somehow related to the theme of the lecture—Clair de Lune, Stardust, Dark Side of the Moon, “popular stuff, like by Moby,” my mom said.
That’s how I first heard about what was going on in class. My mom called one day and asked if I knew what shepherd moons are. I didn’t (although I did know the song by Enya) so she explained.
I wished I had my pen and notebook with me, so I could have written down exactly what she said. But I’m not sure I could have captured how it felt to hear. Her voice had the same combination of cheeriness and awe usually reserved for plays, mystery novels, and television series from Friday Night Lights to Downton Abbey—but there was something else in it, too. Shepherd moons, she told me, were moons near the rings around planets. These moons can shape a ring with the force of their own gravity.
The next time I asked her about the class, I had a pen handy. I can’t totally decipher my notes—they’re more cryptic than usual, partly because I was tucking the phone against my chin, propping a baby against my side with a forearm, and scribbling on the back of an envelope on top of the piano, but mainly because I felt odd taking notes while talking to my mom. But here’s a sampling:
“gamma ray bursts”
“black holes are the warping of space and time”
“evaporating black holes”
And the last line: “I know enough that I look at the world differently.”
That’s what she says every time she talks about the class—that knowing more about the stars has made the world around her change.
She told me it’s because of the professor, how good he is. For Halloween, he dressed up as a black hole and, with the help of his own kids, tossed Mars Bars and Starbursts to the students in the audience. He swung a doughnut on a string to demonstrate centripetal force. According to a report from one of his students, he even broke a rib in class when he jumped on to a skateboard from a desk.
My mom said he connects astronomy to their everyday lives. When Pluto got demoted as a planet, some people were upset. Sometimes, he told the class, you just have to get over it. Maybe you didn’t get an A on a test. Maybe you broke up with a girlfriend. Maybe you’re still orbiting the sun, even though you aren’t part of a special club anymore (which my mom now knows by the mnemonic “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nothing”).
I listened to one of his lectures online, this one about asteroids, and while I know it’s not the same as in person, I did start to understand what she meant. Near the end of the lecture, he moves from the basics of asteroids to talk about how an earth-wide crisis, like an impending collision, might someday bring people together, that it could be an opportunity to stop wars and look beyond the other things that divide us. In the recording, you can hear the students breaking into applause. The sound of it sent me about the rest of my earthbound day still feeling like there was a hand cupped under my heart.
My mom said she’s not always sure she understands exactly what he’s saying, but she feels like she could. She might take the class again the next time he teaches it. She’s started watching episodes of NOVA. My mom read to me from her notes that we are made of stardust, that every atom inside us is made of elements from exploding stars. She told me that there’s a meteor shower coming up, she can’t remember which one.
This was at the end of the most recent email I got from her about the class:
this quote from Steve Weinberg (don’t know who he is):
<The effort to understand the universe is one of the few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy>
Can’t remember why I wrote that down, but I liked it.
I like it, too. And now I know what I was trying to explain about her voice, just like I know where this story should begin, and end. It’s not tragedy at all, just grace.
photo, black hole: Alain R
video: morphicsm, via NASA