The Butterfly Nebula — Chapter 14 Adam and Eve

May 1, 2015

Adam and Eve

The domes of the Empyrean Observatory appeared shortly before sunset, high above the mesa, blunt rotund spires, exotic mushrooms, their white skins like an alien fortress on a red planet. The world dissolved into a vast lake of fire; rock and outcroppings looked friable in the dying light. The bleached domes atop Blake’s Peak were still miles away from us, but as we drew nearer Beatrice and I were able to identify the different ones from the photograph and diagram I had brought along. Soon Venus and her lover Mars were visible in the lower east section of the sky. We felt as if we had entered a two-dimensional world, as if we would drive to the horizon at the mountain’s base and then sail clear off the edge.

And Beatrice: luminous, a saintly aura, ready to immerse her being into the night and the stars, fascinated with the two of us being here, by our joint adventure. In the moment she became the woman I’d first seen at Brainchild Scientific a half year ago, and the one who’d figured so large in my life since, the one I’d loved and probably still loved and who was carrying our child. Her demeanor was the same as when she had played with the Van de Graf Generator, with the optic wheels and stroboscope, rapt and wondrous, but now with the glow of pregnancy and maternity, albeit an early glow considering she was not that far along. She was a child and a mother and a teacher and a lover rolled into one. Her ethereal presence magnified the world.

“When I was younger,” she said, “my parents sometimes took us to the Shore for a few days, and one night my mother and I got far enough away from the boardwalk lights and crowds, from my sister and my father and my father’s family. My mother and I found a quiet place on the beach to lie down and we could see all these brilliant stars. While lying there on our blanket, my mother told me she was rarely happy, that she’d been unhappy for most of her life, but in that moment on the beach with me, looking up at the stars and hearing the rhythmic fall and hiss of the ocean surf, she valued that moment as one of her happiest and said she would always cherish the memory.”

I asked Beatrice if she was still close to her mother. She shook her head and said she’d tell me more about her family at a later time.

Our motel, the Caritas Motel was a non-descript but quaint and clean lodging in faux mission style: stucco walls, small paned windows, terra cotta roof, a palm tree beside a chain link fence that enclosed the swimming pool, a few tacky lawn ornaments including a blithely hospitable senor and senorita standing with their pack donkey. There were maybe eight to a dozen lodgers. The place looked adequate for our needs; we wouldn’t be spending much time here except to sleep. Beatrice and I checked into our separate rooms, washed up, and then regrouped for dinner at a nearby cantina.

As I was unpacking I idly wondered what Gladys might be doing. She had given me a decent send off, calm and civil, and while not overly excited about my trip, I still detected an expression of good will on her part. Gladys believed I was travelling to the Empyrean with a male co-worker, and I thought that maybe my travelling with a woman would not have made much difference to her. The dynamic of our home life had not changed a great deal in recent months—we mostly did our separate things—but Gladys no longer showed resentment toward me or berated me into feeling responsible for her personal happiness or boredom (she no longer seemed bored). And we’d watched a little TV together lately, possibly because I had relaxed my diligence toward constantly working in the home observatory. On one of those nights, while watching “Dallas” (a show I normally loathed), Gladys quickly blurted out, “you’re doing fine!” and we even hugged for a few minutes. I questioned what I may have done, or been doing, to be “doing fine” her comment was so random and out of the blue, but I decided to take the compliment at face value and keep my mouth shut. . . . There’d been no further move toward making love by either one of us, as if New Year’s had been a grand fluke or anomaly. However, the chains and yoke of tension, which had lingered in the air for many months, maybe years, had somehow miraculously dissipated following the act and remained that way in spite of there being no encore.

Around nine-o-clock we drove the pickup to Blake’s Peak and began our ascent, feeling the dip in temperature, a crystalline bite in the air as we gained altitude. The road to the Empyrean Observatory was a long upwards spiral of asphalt switchbacks on the mottled green hillside, like the “Ancient Stairway of the Seven Planets.” I recalled Jacob’s dream of the ladder joining earth and heaven, and our vertiginous climb to the summit of Blake’s Peak, with its crown of domes and telescopes, felt much like Jacob’s dream.

and behold a ladder set upon the earth and the top of it
reached to heaven and behold the angels of God ascending
and descending on it.

The road narrowed, leaving a jagged wall of outcrop above and below us, the drop more precipitous, a plummet into blackness and void. Beatrice gripped my arm and I tried to envision the face of her mother.

Adam Greenfield, one of the resident astronomers, was several years younger than me and a few inches shorter. He had dark hair and eyes to match— large, probing, and inquisitive. His enthusiasm for his work was infectious. Adam congratulated me on my discovery of Scorpius-429. He’d been excited since first reading about the discovery, particularly in light of the observational challenges Scorpius presented to astronomers in the northern hemisphere. I could see that Adam was charmed and smitten by lovely Beatrice, but I also sensed he assumed Beatrice and I were partners or at least sexually linked in some way.

“We get a large number of teachers and classes here,” he said. “Mostly at the secondary school and college level. It is truly wonderful to see kids blown away by these giant telescopes. At any given time I have somewhere between half a dozen and a dozen graduate students and interns helping me and Eve Atwater with our projects. And I’m impressed, Mr. Hale, that you build your own telescopes. Not unlike George Ellery Hale of Mount Wilson fame.”

“You flatter me, but there’s no relation.”

Greenfield laughed. An exuberant laugh.

“And I’m quite familiar with the Brainchild Scientific catalog. What a marvelous educational tool! Love the optics! You do a great service to science education. Now before I take you to meet my colleague Eve Atwater and tell you about the history of the Empyrean, I’ve planned the schedule so that we will be working in a different observatory with a different telescope each night. Regrettably the “Pride of the Empyrean,” the Primum Mobile, is under telescope time, meaning it is being used by an astronomy team from Sweden. But I promise that you will get to see it. I’ve gotten permission for an hour and plan on having you view a single object during that hour. Tonight we will be working with the 85-inch Cristallinum, no lightweight I should add. So, if your’re ready, let’s head on over there.”

Eve Atwater was as soft-spoken and reserved as Adam was manic. “Adam’s Rib” he jokingly called her, the humor of which she did not seem to entirely appreciate. Thin, angular, with ash blond hair and a pleasant but somewhat plain face, slightly unkempt in appearance, but a more tasteful disorder, she was after all a scientist, not a fashion model. Eve was seated at a computer console near the 85-inch Cristallinum telescope and for a few fleeting seconds I experienced vertigo, seeing the elongated barrel pitched forward that way, the angle strongly up and out, rising through the enormous gash that continued to retract as we lifted our eyes hypnotically to the coruscated panoply of stars. The dry silence of the desert was overwhelming. I sucked air into my lungs and realized several seconds later that I hadn’t exhaled, that I’d forgotten to breathe. I had been to a few other observatories back East but never one like this. And Eve appeared so casual, so insouciant, seated at the computer console near the 50-foot long scope. Her lack of amazement was unsettling at first until you remembered she was here almost every night, but still hard to imagine that the routine of being here, of working here, would ever cease to incite wonder. The giant Cristallinum telescope was the Serpent of Eden, tempting her nightly with the forbidden fruit of nebula, novae, and star clusters.

Then Adam related the history of the Empyrean Observatory, which housed the largest collection of optical telescopes in the world. The preliminary work had been done in the late 1950s after astronomers were given approval from the Indian tribe that owned the land. It was sacred land, “i’toi,” before being renamed Blake’s Peak. Legend had it that the tribal leaders were completely sold on the idea of an observatory only after being invited to the University of Arizona near their reservation and given the opportunity to peer through a 36-inch reflector telescope. The “Peak” was largely composed of pre-Cambrian Granite and able to withstand extreme shock; its lower slope covered in palo verde and nesemite, the higher elevations mostly Oak and Pinion Pine. In the early days of building there were numerous challenges and setbacks getting material up the mountain. The giant mirrors were manufactured in faraway locations like Berkeley, California, and Oregon, and Upstate New York at Corning Glass who had manufactured the colossal Primum Mobile lens in the late 1960s. The first dome housed a 36-inch reflector, similar to the one the tribal leaders gazed through. The 36-inch was followed by the Cristallinum, the second significant telescope also cast at Corning Glass, and while the observatory was officially opened to the public in 1960 it would be another four years before the Cristallinum was unveiled, fifty feet in length with a mirror seven-foot wide. But the Primum Mobile, the second largest optical telescope in the world, was considered the crowning achievement of The Empyrean. The dome itself, a brilliant accomplishment of engineering, weighed nearly 500 tons and housed not only the telescope and hardware but also offices, workshops, darkrooms and sleeping quarters for astronomers. It took three years to construct the disc which had followed an innovative method of using fused quartz. The barrel was 90-feet long! Another marvel of the complex was a solar vacuum telescope, built in 1973, which supported the Skylab mission in their observational work. Vase and several educational endowments have donated other telescopes over the years, including a radio telescope.

“We have a man-made lake—a reservoir, actually—that was built in the early to mid-60s because of the need for a sustainable water supply and has a capacity of a few millions gallons of water. The lake also serves as a recreation area for visiting and resident astronomers and staff. We have a store and an astronomy museum of course and also a Native American museum that showcases the history and culture of the local tribes.

“And I should also mention that the Empyrean has an excellent trained staff. Technicians maintain telescopes on a nightly basis and attend to hardware problems, make repairs, or address other requests made by astronomers that might fall outside of routine maintenance. The staff is trained in firefighting and first-aid because up here we are 50 miles from the nearest hospital or fire department. They can treat for minor injuries like rattlesnake bites or scorpion stings.

While Adam was speaking, Eve worked at the telescope control panel and computer console, entering coordinates.

“Why don’t we start with a planet of our solar system that’s become something of a clichéd symbol of Astronomy, despite how magnificent it always appears to us. Perfect timing, too, because the planet is at near elongation, 145 degrees from the sun.”

It was a thrill to see Saturn filling the field of the monitor and telescope, a smooth rounded white-yellow mesmerizing orb girded with bands of gaseous rings, possibly from a satellite unformed by the planet’s tidal pull. And still so many satellites! Far more moons discovered by now than on any other planet in our solar system: Rhea, Titan, Tethys, Lapetus, Phoebe, Pandora, to name a few. And the Cassini Division between Rings A and B appeared as sharp as if a blade had been inserted between them and sliced a circular channel between them.

“Why is it yellow?” Beatrice asked.

“Ammonia gas. The planet is so light and gaseous it would actually float on water.”

“What are the rings made of?”

“Ice crystals . . . Saturn also has extremely high winds, only second to Neptune in surface wind velocity.”

From Saturn we moved onto more rings, this time the Ring Nebula (NGC 6720 or Messier-57) in the constellation Lyra. Again the sheer size of the image felt daunting. At home the Ring Nebula had appeared to me as a life saver candy but here it loomed like a great spheroid ring, a hazy loop that you might be able to reach up and grab and touch the faint coal of the white dwarf star enfolded within.

“Not as diffuse or broken up like other nebulae,” Adam remarked. “Why do you think that is?”

“It’s a bipolar planetary nebula,” I said. “Dense mass along the dwarf’s equator most likely accounts for the approximate symmetry.”

“Correct, Soren. A large infusion — or better yet, ‘spume’ — in the final phase of the star’s passing from a red giant to a white dwarf. Ionized gas makes for those wild colors!”

Eve added that we would be seeing more nebulae over the course of the next few nights, such as the Veil Nebula, the Orion Nebula, and the Butterfly Nebula.

“Does it ever rain here?” Beatrice wondered aloud.

“Annual rainfall is quite high for the region (about 22 inches) but spring is the driest season, only a half inch of rain on average.”

“Next we observed the great spiral galaxy, NGC 4565 in Como Berenices, much in shape and size like our own.

Adam said, “That light is reaching us from 30 million years ago. Think of it: whatever is taking place in those star systems is 30 million years away from us.”

Beatrice asked how the age of stars and their distance is determined and I answered her about the Cepheid Variables and Eve expanded on the work of Edwin Hubble in determining stars’ distances and the age of the universe based on Cepheids.

Later we watched the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. One of several interesting facts about Castor and Pollux was how well they fit into the concept of being twins, appearing so close together when in fact the distance between them was vast. Pollux, an orange giant, is the brighter of the two and about ten times the size of our sun, though considerably smaller than Arcturus. The Geminids, a meteor shower normally occurring in December or January are located in the constellation near the twins. And Castor is made up of three binaries, at least of one of them an eclipsing binary like Burns and Allen, so when we observe Castor we are looking at six stars, not one, three pairs of twins within the mythological twins. Ever since Herschel we’ve seen that stars are more likely to be multiple systems, not isolated and singular.

“The nature of the observable deals in twins, or pairs,” said Adam.

Soon, like the boom on a crane, the Cristallinum telescope was lowered and pivoted away from the aperture which commenced to close. The elision of Heaven at two-o-clock in the morning was one of the saddest and most bittersweet visions I’d ever had in my life, as if you were losing one of your senses, or having a heightened sense abruptly snatched away from you.

“See you tomorrow, same time,” said Adam Greenfield. Eve waved goodbye.

As we descended Blake’s Peak, Beatrice and I talked incessantly about our first night in the Empyrean and what we had seen—Saturn, the Ring Nebula, the spiral galaxy NGC 4565, Castor and Pollux—but once we reached the highway, we remained in a mute trance for the entire drive back to the Caritas Motel. We were overcome with weariness that I attributed to the excitement of the day and then the ebbing of the adrenalin rush we’d experienced in the observatory. I wanted Beatrice more than ever. In the moment, driving back on the Arizona highway at 2:30 AM, I had an insane desire for her. She was gorgeous, but it was the mercurial nature of her mind, her elation, her child-like joy, that incited me to possess her. Before we parted at the Caritas, I kissed Beatrice on the cheek and then held her arm for several seconds, my gaze leaping from her brown to her blue eye.

“Not right now,” she said. “I badly need to get some sleep.”

“Me too,” I said, letting go of her arm and bidding her a good night.

We returned to our separate rooms.

Before falling asleep, I had a short dream or a series of random and disjointed images . . . Beatrice looking through the giant Cristallinum telescope with a black patch over one eye (could not tell if it was the blue or the brown). Then the telescope changed into a skyscraper turned on its side as if tipped over. Then Beatrice was facing me, but half of her face was light and the other half was in darkness and behind the half face that was veiled in darkness I saw a residential street from my town with a single lamp post and at the end of the street the constellation Scorpius sinuated above a meadow, the whole scene lighted as if it were a stage set. I then saw the light half of Beatrice’s face, was in flames, or more accurately this half of her face had become a fire, burning steadily, a commingling of hearth contentment and aching need.

“Were I to smile,” she said “You would be turned to ash . . . because my beauty, which, as it goes higher from step to step of the eternal palace, burns, as you know, with ever brighter fire . . .”

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