The Butterly Nebula 2 – Brainchild Scientific

July 14, 2013

Brainchild Scientific

My love of astronomy had begun in 1960 when I was a seaman aboard the USS Shostakovich in the South Atlantic, several miles off the coast of Brazil — 22 57’ South, 42 12’ West. I had grown up in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, where the night skies were packed with stars, but I had never paid as close attention to them, was never so enthralled by them, as when I was on the Shostakovich at three in the morning. There were more stars out there at 22 57’ South, 42 12’ West than I’d seen in my entire life (and strange new ones too) strung along the horizon like strands of pearls and then thickening in brilliance and number toward the black vault of the heavens. And there was silence, too, unlike anything you’d ever experience on land, except maybe in the desert, and the silence was ideal for observing the stars, for communicating, almost in a state of prayer, with worlds outside your own. It was an important, life-changing experience for me, buoyed on this huge, gently floating ship in the warm dark night surrounded by thousands of stars. I was hooked. I started using binoculars and learned some of the new constellations at this latitude: Fornax, Sculptor and Crux, among others, and stars such as Proxima Centauri. Regardless of whether or not I had watch, I spent an hour or two every night on deck with clusters and novae, binaries, galaxies, meteors, the planets and their moons, and Earth’s moon. I logged my observations, sometimes accompanied by small, carefully rendered drawings, in a thick notebook. I soon moved up to a spotting scope.

I got along pretty well with most of my shipmates, but they started to rib me once they noticed I was spending a lot of time star gazing. They’d had ways of ribbing me almost from the beginning—mild stuff, like when I would enter a room the swabs would say, “In”Hale, and when I left the room it was, naturally, “Ex”Hale but after I began studying astronomy and gazing at the night sky, I was frequently and predictably called “Galileo” and “Copernicus.” It was during these early days of my new hobby that a swab approached me one day during mess.

“Hey, Copernicus, you ought to check out this ensign named Lester Benson. He can probably help you with your star gazing hobby.”

So I found Ensign Lester Benson. He was a quiet and withdrawn individual, but he explained a great deal of astronomical phenomena to me that I’d previously had little knowledge of—things like meteor showers, or red giants and white dwarfs, or the aurora borealis which we weren’t going to be seeing in this latitude of 22-deg. South. And Benson had a fairly large reflector telescope and a few books on astronomy. Eventually Ensign Benson and I formed an amateur astronomy club on board the Shostakovich, with the addition of Nick, the radioman, and a couple other sailors. We would meet one or two nights each week, and although our short-lived club had turned out to be a worthwhile activity and helped to alleviate some of the boredom of being weeks-on-end at sea, I mostly enjoyed doing astronomy on my own. There was something about searching the night skies into the wee hours that welcomed introverts and lone wolves. As the night grew more silent and still, I realized I was more at peace, more at home. I had always thought I was fairly social and outgoing, or at least moderately so. I had never thought of myself as an introvert, but in those days on board the Shostakovich with a new telescope, as I was turning 20, I discovered a side of me that I hadn’t known existed before.

I remember one weekend I traded shore leave so I could stay aboard the ship and follow a partial lunar eclipse, a celestial event that was new and compelling for me. My shipmates, including Benson, thought I was crazy to pass up a couple nights of what everyone agreed would be “the best time you’ll ever have in your life.” And as I watched the sepia penumbra swarm the yellow disc of the moon, I imagined my shipmates in Rio dancing with whores, staggering through the streets of the Copacabana or Praca Maua neighborhoods with whores. I knew they would be having fun, or their version of fun. I had already done the debauch, the amnesiac bender in Rio, even during Carnevale, and I wasn’t interested this time. I had lost my virginity in the Navy and had gotten my first and only dose of clap in the Navy. I was still interested in women, and often horny, but Life for me was becoming about something other than just getting drunk and laid on shore leave.

Following my discharge from the US Navy in the early part of ‘62, I applied for a job at Brainchild Scientific. I had noted their address from the catalog and from ordering lens kits, and I made this great discovery that the factory-warehouse store was in Clinton, about a 25-minute drive from where I’d grown up. Bob Crane, the founder of Brainchild, was an amateur photographer and lens expert of some renown. He shared my enthusiasm for optics but not for astronomy. During the interview I told him everything I knew about single element lenses, though they weren’t my favorite. I also mentioned some history about the World War II Japanese U-boat periscope Bob had acquired for the store and that seemed to impress him. I would later discover that Bob Crane was a Unitarian and believed that Science and faith in God were not mutually exclusive and could even coexist. He wore a crew cut and black-framed eyeglasses, and a short-sleeved shirt and large wrist watch, and he looked just like dozens of NASA engineers at that time. It was the Camelot Era when there seemed to be no limit to what smart young white men could achieve. We lived in this fantasy palace of possibility, a realm of Science, and Jazz records, and foreign films, and mysterious young women with silver lipstick.

After a few minutes of discussing the responsibilities of the position, Bob Crane pushed aside my application and stared curiously at me. He had a face that wasn’t unpleasant, which made his staring a bit more tolerable; though I thought the silence hanging between us was a little too intense for an ordinary job interview.

“So, Soren,” he finally asked me, “What do you think of John Glenn orbiting the Earth three times?”

“I think it’s the greatest thing our nation has done since winning the Second World War,” I told him. “I am one-hundred percent behind the space program and NASA. I believe that our destiny is in space exploration. We can’t ignore it.”

Bob smiled. He seemed pleased with my answer.

“And what about the Space Race against the Russians? D’you think we can put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? As President Kennedy has challenged us to do?”

“Yes, sir, I believe we can put a man on the moon by the end of this decade, and I will do whatever I can to be a part of that challenge.”

I was hired on the spot.

I had a rough time at first. There was so much in the way of inventory to learn. But I was only 21, and Bob Crane, who was seven years older, adopted a paternalistic role with me, deciding that I possessed enough smarts and desire and work ethic for him to train and mentor me in the arcane business of scientific catalogs and optical lenses. And Bob sought out my opinion as an amateur astronomer on how I rated certain lens types and manufacturers. He found my ratings “invaluable” and considered them when planning new products against those of our competitors. I became assistant store manager within six months and was promoted to store manager before the end of my second year following the store manager’s resignation over a dispute as to whether the lens kit business should cede some ground to new lines of merchandise. As it turned out, the store manager’s vision would come to pass anyway.

The business grew rapidly through the 1960s and I began seeing less of Bob. By then I had become general store manager, and entrusted with all business operations. Bob Crane had become rich. He’d acquired a country club membership, a 46-foot sloop, and a new young girlfriend after his divorce. Once a year in July he threw a party on his yacht (christened “My Little Brainchild”) for all store employees (about 30 of us or more by the latter part of the decade), and in late fall he usually sailed down to the Bahamas and stayed for most of the winter. He attended to company business in the spring and summer, but more as an advisor, or a senior partner, who had no other partners oddly enough.

Gladys began nagging me to leave Brainchild Scientific. She complained often that I received little compensation for all my hard work which had contributed significantly to the success of the business, and if Bob wasn’t willing to make me a partner or part owner, then I should leave him high-and-dry and work for a better company at better pay and with more benefits. Gladys hated Bob Crane.

“He’s a playboy. He’s using you.”

“No, he’s not. We wouldn’t be doing this well if it hadn’t been for Bob.”

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say. And it’s precisely what these small business owners brainwash you loyal quiet types into believing. Your problem is you have no ambition. You don’t want to get anywhere and make our lives better.”

“My life is fine the way it is,” I tell her.

“That’s nice, but mine isn’t. You have no drive, Soren. All you care about is your astronomy hobby. You’re too complacent . . . you’re too passive.”

The Brainchild catalog is a treasure trove of merchandise and gizmos for science hobbyists, as well as its line of optics. A sort of Last Whole Earth Catalog in its own right (Stewart Brand had acknowledged us for listing nearly all the items that he included in the Last Whole Earth Catalog). Within the Brainchild pages one can find beakers and chemistry sets, Mendelian hybridization kits, optic wheels, astrolabes and rock tumblers, prisms and barometers, plastic models of human skeletons overlaid with all the colored organs, veins and arteries, Fresnl magnifiers and Barlow lenses, geodes, Galileo Thermometers, constellation and wheels, Moon clocks, model solar systems done to near scale, magnetic pendulums and sextants, kits to make your own lightning, kits of all kinds, and of course a wide range of telescopes and microscopes.

I own nine telescopes and have built four of them myself, including the EtherScan-1200. I mostly study binary systems, and with the higher-powered lenses I’ve acquired with Brainchild’s employee discount, I can now observe binaries that previously weren’t visible with my other telescopes. When I’m not following binaries, and there when there isn’t any other significant celestial event—like the Leonids or an approach of Mars—vying for my attention in the night sky, then I normally work on my back-burner project of identifying and logging every mapped sea and crater of the lunar landscape. I still mostly use a National Geographic map from 1969 and the NASA photos as reference. The Seas: The Mare Cogitum, the Mare Vaporum the Mare Nubium, Mare Humorum. Craters: Rina Amadeus, Zollner, Gylden, and the ones named after philosophers, such as Kant or Descartes, or famous Romans like Tacitus and Agrippa. . . .

Nearly every night I am lost for at least two hours but usually more in a circle of black at the terminus of a long metal tube where the myriad stars grow in number the longer you focus, the longer you stare. Tonight I am locked somewhere near the Crab Nebula, that great supernova first sighted in China in the year 1054. Some nebula look like pussy willows, slightly blurred ellipsoids, but The Crab always appears to be escaping from itself, its crimped and jagged tentacles of gas perpetually fanning out, arcing, groping . . . The Horse Head Nebula in Orion is another favorite, rising out of interstellar matter like a knight on a chessboard, or a huge cosmic nose.

I think HG Wells said it best for me:
“. . . and I spend many of the clear nights in the study of astronomy. There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope.”

And I would like Kepler’s epitaph to be my own:

I measured the skies,
Now the shadows I measure
Skybound was the mind,
Earthbound the body rests.

You see, Gladys may be right. My attraction and constant need for this chilled realm has turned me into a recluse of sorts, or maybe a “cold and distant” person, whatever that means. I have recoiled at the touch of others, and I often find it a challenge to maintain a sense of what’s happening day to day on this planet, and often I am mute and incapable of making small talk with strangers. Beatrice would understand this need of mine. Beatrice might have a touch of coldness herself, but she would love astronomy too. Like me, she’d become drawn into the serene quiet and solitude of celestial observation and experience the joy of finding release from the daily commerce and interaction with the world. I was able to see that in her eyes—in the brown and the blue—as they’d probed with such questioning and wondrous clarity. I was able to see that in a moment with lovely Beatrice.

Sometimes in the depths of the night I may be momentarily jolted out of my observation with the thought that I will never be a father, never have a child. I will pause and look around the glass room with its darkened luster, and I will see my eight-year-old son or daughter materialize in the shadow or beam of light beside me, peering through a scaled-down telescope of their own that I’ve built for him, or her. They are half asleep, eyes drooping, yawning, but staring as long as their attention will hold, which is normally a few minutes, and asking me fascinating questions about Sirius, or the Rings of Saturn, the Moons of Jupiter, the Dark Side of the Moon . . . I don’t think about it often, but I do have this periodic aching feeling of going the rest of my life without children. Gladys has opposed any idea of adopting a child, which had been the most reasonable alternative I thought when faced with our inability to conceive, and afterwards when we’d stopped trying altogether from sheer lack of interest.

I enter the main part of the house around 1:00 AM. The kitchen always looks strangely alien, a muted spectral fluorescent light above the sink, and there is a slight hum of the refrigerator, and a faint ticking of the wall clock. Through the kitchen window a lamp at the far end of the street casts a white pool of light, almost like a stage spotlight. No one can honestly convey the feeling of a sleeping house in the small hours of the morning. All your senses are pricked up a notch and that primal state cannot adequately be translated in a visual medium like TV or movies, which mostly use the empty-house-in-the-middle-of-the-night setting to prepare you for violence. That’s not what the mood is about at all. Perhaps if you are over stimulated and worried about something, and you are more prone to a little fear and paranoia, you may hear things or see things. But that time of night is really about peace and silence, a tranquility that is somehow heightened in the senses by a few previous hours spent dwelling in the stars. There is no question of cheap thrills and sensationalism when one is in that state of mind. There is no light and jarring appliance noise or television or radio chatter (at least not tonight), few if any cars, and the one or two you might notice, whose lights sweep along the wall, are interesting. No lawnmowers or chainsaws. These serene times are what frighten people most. I stand in the kitchen for a minute or two longer, acknowledging the miracle of this world (and others), and then I quietly head upstairs where I find Gladys on the far side of our bed, snoring. Her back looks inflated, slightly unreal in the streetlamp light sifting through the blinds, making bars of shadow across her nightgown. Often Gladys will skip the comfort of our queen size bed and sleep on the sofa bed in the den with the television left on . . . I watch her sleep for half a minute, hoping in a meditative way that a connection of some kind, a brief coupling of souls, will reveal itself at this late hour. But not tonight, and I guess not any night. Gladys and I have been together 16 years, and she’s a stranger. I get in bed and turn my back on her back.


2 Responses to “The Butterly Nebula 2 – Brainchild Scientific”

  1. marnilla said

    The Beatrice chapter has a light and sweet touch that makes the tech-y telescope information seem magical and erotic.

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