December 10, 2012
I was four....Maybe five....Which would make it 1978 or '79. I don't know how the subject came up. Probably my father just wanted to tell someone and chose me. He told me there was a certain kind of star out there called a neutron star. It was a burnt out husk; a star who'd long since seen its glory days rush away from it....The final remnant of a supernova, a blast so bright it would outshine its host galaxy even if its galaxy had hundreds of billions of stars. And a neutron star is heavy, he said. Very heavy! So heavy that its gravity could make light puddle on its surface. WOW!!! Light puddles!! What would it be like to step in a puddle of light? Would it splash? If it did, could you see it splash? Would light droplets sparkle as little chunks of light worbbled off? Or would they stick together so no light could hit your eyes to see? Would it compress under my boot, like water? Like molasses? Like air? Like ice? If you scooped some up in your enclosed hands, what would it look like to dip your face into it? Would liquid light seep into the weave of your pants? Could you clean your face with it? Now, even then I new it would be impossible to stand on the surface of a star, especially on one whose gravity was so high. But I pretended you could put on a special space suit to walk on a neutron star and experience this special form of light; and then I tried to simulate what liquid light would act like as I walked through their puddles....These simulations didn't end quickly. I would come back to them on a monthly basis for years on end. By the age of 9 I knew I didn't know enough for my simulations to make any sense. I was assuming light under great gravitation acted like a gas under great compression and there was no evidence to say this was at all true. Plus, I had learned there was something called "Relativity", both "Special" and "General", which changed the way light reacted, and in strange ways. So whenever I saw something to do with light or relativity, or stars I read it passionately, though not always with much success. At 13 I chose neutron stars as the subject for my paper in freshman high school science class. I attacked the subject with gusto, even going to the closest university library to check out several astronomy text books and a single PhD dissertation on neutron stars. (Way over my head.) I thought I was understanding the material. I wasn't. I even thought I understood what they were saying about the mechanism for supernova. I didn't. And when I did my presentation the teacher recognized all the mistakes I'd made. He also recognized the passion with which I gave the presentation. He graded it as a 'B' with the only comment, "Next time choose something less complex." By the time I was 16 I had figured out that light couldn't puddle, certainly not the way I was visualizing it and probably not at all. Of course, by this time, it was too late: I was completely in love with astrophysics, a passion that has plagued me the moment the image of light puddling struck me. And, hopefully, it always will. And when I told this story to my father? He denied saying it "did" puddle but insisted he said it "might", completely ignoring the fact that it lead me down the path to my first love. That was the first time I was truly and deeply dissapointed in my father: he just didn't get it. He was wrong, yes, but the increadible image his wrongness supplied made my imagination soar into the stars. Of course, that's just one thread to the story of my love of the Milkey Way, its stars and our solar system. Like everyone else, there was no singular event that made repples though my life but a series of events that constructively and destructively interfered to make the pattern of my life as it is now.
An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.