“It’s just physics,” says the girl, and she draws a diagram on the white board to explain the way light refraction works underwater. “There are equations you can do to show how it works, but really… it’s just physics.”
She’s Olivia Humes, a junior in high school, confident, serious in her adult haircut, and totally adept with the science behind light refraction. I am gobstruck. “That girl… she is going to SPACE,” I say to Gwen, who’s seated next to me in the little 30 person classroom attached to the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory.
“She is AWESOME,” responds Gwen. “It’s JUST physics. No big deal.”
The observatory was initially located in downtown Seattle and then moved to this treed corner by the university’s northern gate; it’s been in the current location since 1895. It wasn’t really meant for stargazing, it was a teaching facility. Western Washington’s unpredictable skies make the whole pursuit a gamble. The sometimes occupants of this tiny stone building — it’s open twice a month — educate the general public in addition to astronomy students.
“You caught all the awesome band names, right?” asks Gwen. “Alexander’s Dark Band? I mean, come on. It’s perfect.”
“42 degrees for purple,” I reply, referring to the angle at which light has to hit water to refract the purple in a rainbow. I have just learned this; I am only pretending to understand it.
The evening’s program is run by the Seattle Astronomical Society. They staff the dome and provide the speakers and set out little models of the planets in our solar system. Everyone’s welcome, there are tattooed teenagers and a kid in pajamas and cowboys boots and my posse of three artist types who are just curious (in all the interpretations of that word). I have been enticed with the promise of seeing Saturn and looking through the historic telescope; my nerdy friends join me because they like those things too.
The scope is not working properly and the sky does not cooperate. I don’t care.
I don’t care that I can’t see Saturn because when I crack open the cabinets in the pillar room underneath the telescope, I see Theodore Jacobsen’s notebooks, his observations written in tiny elaborate script.
The astronomer who operates the telescope opens a little glass panel and explains how the tracking device on it works, comparing it to an ice skater speeding up and slowing down by raising and lower her arms.
In the transit room, where another telescope is used to calculate the time with extreme accuracy, the astronomer with inexplicable hair explains how to navigate by the stars. “If you know what time it is and what star you’re seeing, you know where you are,” he says. “I see these boats going through the locks and they have no idea how to calculate their location by the sky anymore.”
A third astronomer — the place is filled with astronomers — gracefully answers the question about why this little observatory is in a location surrounded by trees. “Oh, this is a memorial forest, these trees are planted for the fallen of World War I. Of course, they were a lot smaller then, they wouldn’t have blocked the sky.”
Outside, a serious young man in a “BAZINGA” t-shirt tending to the 7000 dollar telescope assures us we have the entire summer to see Saturn. A little boy looks at Deneb, a star in the East and says, “What if it’s surrounded by exo-planets! And they’re populated by aliens! And they’re all made up of squishy bits!” I laugh out loud and his father, a big man with a shaved head says, “We’re reading War of the Worlds at home. It’s very… exciting,” in a posh British accent.
Another astronomer, a woman with straight gray hair, explains the structure of a star group that’s part of the Big Dipper and when I look through the telescope, I see exactly what she’s described, a yellow star and a bluer, smaller one, right next to it.
I don’t care that I can’t see Saturn or look through the beautiful old scope because there is plenty to see and the people are so diverting. Everything makes me gleeful. There’s a model of the earth suspended in a cage of orbiting rings in the transit room. “Create a diversion,” I say to field trip friend Ed, “I want to steal that thing.”
Up in the dome, the astronomer who would be operating the scope if it worked explains the Milky Way and what it’s like to see far away galaxies. “All those fancy gorgeous photos, they’re taken with long exposures and perfect optics. For us, they’re just dim fuzzies. We call them dim fuzzies because that’s all you get to see.”
“Dim fuzzies,” I mouth to Ed, who is standing opposite me in the dome. “Another awesome band name.”
I like the slice in the dome that lets the light in and the huge ball bearings that the dome spins on when you pull the ropes that rotate the dome itself. I like the tight winding staircase, and my companions who are in a perpetual state of amusement. “What are you kids doing in there!?” mock my friends, independently of each other as I rifle through the cabinets in the pillar room.
“Look, this is where they keep their tin foil!” I say.
“This is clear cedar,” says Gwen, pointing at the shelves. “It’s, I dunno, 70 dollars a foot?”
“My brother has my telescope,” says Ed later, when we’re standing on the grass where the other scopes are set up.
“You’re going to need to get that back,” I respond.
The stars in the cluster of the Big Dipper are Mizar and Alcor, they rotate around each other. I see them as one star, but through the big white telescope on the grass, I see them as two stars. They’re not Saturn. I don’t care.
The girl is now outside in the dark summer night. I hear one of the visitors talking to her. “You were great. I’m going to tell your mom how great you were.”
“That girl is going to SPACE,” I say again. “That is going to be awesome.”
The Theodore Jacobsen Observatory is open to the public twice a month. It’s free. You should go.