The Butterfly Nebula Chapter 16 Night 2–Eve

October 21, 2015

Night Two — Eve

I gazed up slowly at the Cristalinum and its massive ribbed dome: the fork mount, the polar axle and worm wheel, the alt-azimuth motor, the camera and lens adapters, the shutter plates like something on a Stegosaurus hide, the steel members of the dome’s armature like a vaulted three-dimensional fan, spokes radiantly arcing to converge at the peak, a sealed point about to slide open, seizing us with the gaping aperture of Heaven through which the giant telescope carried us back in time.

“Behold the Veil!” Adam Greenfield exclaimed with a sweeping gesture of his arm, like a carnival barker. “In the constellation Cygnus. NGC 6960, being the Western Veil and Witch’s Broom, and NGC 6992, first discovered by William Herschel. The gauzy remnant of a supernova, not unlike the more well-known Crab, but we think this one is older, though still a mere baby compared to others.”          The nebula’s structure slightly resembled the Milky Way galaxy. The giant 84-inch Cristallinum telescope mainly focused on the Witch’s Broom portion of the nebula, a graceful elegant tail of gases. One of the startling features of this nebula was the visual paradox of its being simultaneously frozen and in motion like a cast off veil slowly drifting downward and then stopping, but not fully stopped, closer to being suspended or snagged at some invisible catch in its descent. I was reminded of an elongated finger, or an electric worm or sinew, like the one seen in a Jacob’s Ladder but fixed and frozen.

Beatrice and Eve chatted about a movie that had to do with the Veil Nebula, Dark Star. Animated and witty, more comfortable tonight, Beatrice grew larger than life, a trompe l’oeil the result of observing these magnificent-in-scale objects. She’d gathered herself into an insubstantial persona, vaporous and somehow alluringly erotic like some pagan goddess inwardly warring with longing and sensual gratification as she guided the hero on his quest. She took a deep breath and said:

“When we were driving here yesterday we met someone who knew the both of you. Virgil.”

Adam and Eve stared at each a moment until Eve mouthed the name, “Virgil.”

“Of course,” Adam said, “we know him well. I believe his tribal name was Gaagii which means “Raven.” Virgil came to the Empyrean as a graduate intern and stayed here about two years. I was starting my residency then, 1967 or ’68, somewhere around that time. He was an excellent student and first-rate amateur astronomer, not unlike you, Mr. Hale—something in both your working styles, perhaps employing more imagination or intuition to reach that eureka moment. Anyway, Virgil still comes to see us a two or three times a year, and while I know he still studies astronomy on his own he’d decided years ago that the academic life wasn’t for him and instead became a craftsman, a maker of fine Native American jewelry. In fact, I’m wearing one of his creations—moonstones of moons.”

Adam held out his left hand so we could examine the ring that Virgil had made for him. A fat silver band studded with moonstone and black onyx, each stone representing a phase of the lunar cycle so that new moon was all black onyx and full moon was all moonstone and first and last quarter, waxing and waning crescent, and waxing and waning gibbous were a combination of these two.

“I turn the band to the top of my finger so it points to whichever stone is the current lunar phase,” Adam said fondly. The ring seemed to be as important to him as Beatrice felt about her bracelet, and I realized that Virgil’s talent lay not only in his skilled workmanship but in a supernumerary ability to see a person’s soul. A piece of jewelry made a first step, a tactile and sensual offer and it more or less confirmed his vision based on how the gift offer was received. He often learned a great deal about another person in that first generous probing. Precious stones, gems, also possessed astrological significance, and while Virgil, like me, did not practice Astrology (according to Adam), he understood the planets and cosmology and also understood planetary, solar, lunar and earthly cycles and was keenly attuned to such relationships. I had sensed that in Virgil’s person and spirit there lived a harmonious fusion of the sky and the earth. . . . I had too much sky and knew it. . . . I thought I might want to learn the Navajo language.

Eve worked the console with the Veil Nebula still suspended in front of us. She then set the coordinates for the great Pinwheel Galaxy.

“I’m heading to the cafeteria soon,” she said. “Would you like some coffee?”

I declined. At home I would often brew coffee or strong black tea to carry me through hours of viewing and working, depending on the object or time of night/morning I was observing. I would typically work no later than 2:00 am because I needed to get some sleep for my job, but if the positions of a Messier object required that I chart after 3:00 am, I would then go to bed by 10:00 or possibly as early as 9:00, wake up at 3:00 and stay awake for the rest of the day. That’s where coffee helped the most.

But in this cathedral of steel and concrete and computer banks and instruments and telescope lenses the size of above ground swimming pools, I felt neither sleepy or jittery but rather alert and calm, an enlightened meditative state, absorbing every word and physical detail that passed between Adam and Eve as they engaged in astronomer shop talk. And because of the dome it felt more like a mosque than a cathedral, or at least a Greek Orthodox sacred edifice reminiscent of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the ancient seat of Byzantium which I’d been fortunate enough to visit on a Navy shore leave. I thought of how vastly different the experience would have been had I come all the way out here to the desert with Gladys. For one thing, Gladys would not have been with me at the Empyrean Observatory but instead lounging at the motel, stupefied by the local programming and drinking her cherished Soco or a White Russian, the ethereal blue nimbus of television light encircling her nodding head, pretty much the same as at home. I then saw Gladys as a saint or mage, the holy light traveling with her wherever she happened to go, New Jersey or Arizona. Bored with TV is where Gladys would always be.

Beatrice began flirting with Adam but the flirting soon evolved into a more serious dialogue concerning Theoretical Physics and Cosmology in general, and I hung back because I sensed her inquisitive nature would most likely favor Adam’s view or explanation of the cosmos over mine.

“The universe is expanding but what and where is the logical endpoint, the boundary? And when does it stop and begin to contract? How can it even have an age?”

“Background emission,” Adam said, “and Quarks . . . all these things tell us about the beginning, about the Big Bang. And of course the Doppler Shift in the spectra of stars reveals that all matter in the universe is moving apart, all objects moving away from one another . . . an expanding universe if you will.”

“But our astronomical dating is based on our own interpretation of time.”

Adam looked astonished.

“Wait! You’re a science teacher?”

“But creative, too,” I interjected.

“I appreciate that. It’s always good to question,” Adam said, staring at Beatrice. “Distance is time. Light years. The time it takes for light to reach Earth from the sun has been an extremely useful standard of measurement.”

“The measurements themselves are still arbitrary,” Beatrice said. “We discreetly divide a day into 24 units called hours, a single rotation of the Earth. And then we segment every hour into 60 minutes and every minute into 60 seconds. Why 60? Why not 150? The speed of light still assumes that there is a unit of time called a second which is what we use to measure distance, but what is a second? And then there are months and years. We describe one orbit around the sun as a year and divide that into 365 days and 12 months comprised of different numbered days. Our calendar on average is anywhere from two to three days different than a lunar month. Why are months either 30 or 31 days with February having 28 days except for every four years? The Romans only had ten months in their calendar. And what about the Chinese calendar? Or the Mayan calendar we saw on those walls outside? The Maya had the same number of days in a year but corrected differently than us when the standard measurements didn’t conform. No Leap Year. Instead they came up with ten months of 36 days each and had a kind of leftover month of five days.”

No doubt Adam had heard this before, but in the moment he’d become so enchanted by Beatrice that he weighed his words before speaking as if he’d been prepared and keyed to impress her. A seductive poetic language, Astronomy, and though Beatrice was a science teacher she was also something of a poet. . . . Eve continued to enter coordinates at the computer console. She always appeared intensely focused and devoid of emotion in her task, but there was another dimension to her that I’d been unsuccessful in teasing out. Before Adam spoke again I studied Eve briefly and realized that she reminded me a little of Sad Laura.

“Some brilliant questions,” Adam remarked as he faced Beatrice. “We know that Man has created these measurements drawn largely from observations of our sun and moon which then enabled us to determine distance in relation to time. And although the ancients’ model of a geocentric Ptolemaic universe had been wrong, they’d devised a calendar and astronomical measurements based on their observations: the motion of our planet relative to our sun and moon and the planets nearest to us in the solar system. The calendars you just mentioned, except the Mayan, are or were mostly lunar based. Anyway, all calendars were motivated by an essential need of Neolithic Man to understand the relationship between the heavens and agriculture, and that relationship was first manifested in magic and later in religion. Being able to fix the times of year to plant or harvest created all kinds of possibilities including construction and more geographically diverse trade and ultimately smaller societies gathered into larger ones, becoming cities and civilizations. The calendar was absolutely essential in the evolution that took place from the Neolithic period to Civilization. Accurate or inaccurate, a calendar was the first step in learning about the universe.”

“But not a clock,” Beatrice countered. “That came thousands of years later. For God’s sakes, we fix the time zones of our planet based on a starting point in England! What a conceit!”

“Well, Einstein said, ‘the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.’”

Eve had already left the observatory room and Beatrice soon took a break as well. They were gone for a short while but they returned together from the cafeteria. Eve held a golden apple that she’d gotten from the cafeteria and she offered a bite of it to Adam.

Of course I had never before seen the Pleiades—Messier-45 (M45)—through a telescope of the Cristallinum’s size and power. At first view it was like a dozen or more flashbulbs popping, as if I were a film star walking out of a Hollywood premiere. Translucent haloes arrayed in a formation like a starship fleet preparing to invade Earth, looming and menacing. I quickly turned my head and imagined the afterimage flickering on my retinas like sunspots. Beautiful names: Alcyone (an eclipsing binary), Merope, Maia, Electra—the four brightest or most spectrally luminous of the sisters—and with the others could have made a casually discarded strand of pearIs or the glinting glass and silver ornaments on a Christmas tree. Watching the Pleiades I couldn’t tell if I was wandering among them or trapped inside of them. An extremely dense cluster, its main stars cloaked in nebulous dust and gases. And because of the large number of stars and proximity of the cluster, and their range of magnitude, the Cristallinum presented the illusion of endless depth of field.

“Relatively new hot blue stars,” said Adam Greenfield. “Most likely formed from a nebula. And so close! What a great tool for understanding distances viz-a-viz stellar magnitude and ambient dense formations.”

“So close you can almost hop on over there,” said Eve. “Just down the interstellar highway a piece.”

Adam grinned, amused.

“Eve’s the real comedian,” he explained. “I mostly play George to her Gracie,” and he then actually winked at Beatrice and me almost in the way George Burns might have winked when lovingly excusing Gracie Allen to his TV audience. His reference immediately pulled me back to why we were here in the first place—wide-eyed children of the Empyrean.

“But Eve’s humor,” Adam continued, “is a bit on the dry side. Not Gracie’s dingbat savant.”

As we drove back to the Caritas Motel a few random drops of rain spattered the windshield. I felt spent, wiped out, a bit sullen and moody. I needed rest but wanted to confront Beatrice while this mood of mine festered.

“I saw you flirting with him,” I said, accusingly.

“Don’t tell me you care!”

“I don’t.”

“You’re jealous!” Beatrice said in a surprised but half mocking tone. “Is it because Adam Greenfield is a real astronomer?”

“I’m a real astronomer. Don’t patronize me.”

“You’re an amateur astronomer. A rank amateur. . .”

“Oh yeah? I’ve worked with telescopes and lenses every day of my life for nearly 20 years!”

She shot me an indulgent look.

“You’ve sold them. And they’re not anything on the scale of the ones we’ve been looking through here. Adam is a resident astronomer. He publishes. He lectures. He attends and participates in professional conferences around the world. That’s what I mean by a real astronomer.”

“Those things don’t necessarily make you a real astronomer,” I reminded her.

“Jesus, the routine is sacred for you, isn’t it? You are such a creature of habit! It doesn’t matter if the habit is Gladys or your telescopes. You don’t even seem to care if you’re happy or unhappy. It’s like you have no sense of that, being in touch with your own emotions.”

I sharply steered the car over onto the shoulder of the road and glared

at Beatrice.

“What are you doing?”

“Please stop it.”

She quietly nodded and I began driving again. Familiarity does breed contempt.

“And where has it gotten you?” she soon recommenced, sounding more like a peevish spouse than ever.

“It’s gotten us here for one thing.”

“True, but after how many years and thousands of hours? So much wasted time.”

“Sorry, but I don’t view it as ‘wasted time.’”

“But couldn’t some of it have been better spent? Maybe with Gladys? Or a child? Or a close friend? Time used in different and surprising ways?”

“So what’s your point?”

“I mean you have wondered about it, haven’t you? What else you might have been doing instead?”

“Sure, but ultimately you decide on what is most important, what to follow, and you then bear the consequences of your decision, including if it involves suffering for the things you’ve let go of. You can’t have it all.”

“Oh no?”

“No! When you’re older maybe you will better understand.”

Beatrice laughed loudly. “Thanks, Dad!”

I laughed too, but I was certain Beatrice did want to have it all: to have our baby without conforming to societal norms and strictures; to be a teacher but not adhere closely to rules; to have a man and a woman when it suited her, perhaps at the same time. But as you age you begin to notice this flawed responsibility on the part of the young, this lack of sacrifice and unbridled selfishness, the whole “growing up” thing, and the problem always appeared to get worse with each generation proudly more carnal, self-indulgent and nihilistic than its predecessor. I thought of the punks replacing the hippies, the hippies replacing beatniks and bohemians, and so on. Ever since we’d met I had never felt a generation gap between Beatrice and me, but I felt one now.

“I’m being pulled earthward,” she said abruptly, “and the sky has less meaning for me these days. Gravity is more of a living presence in my body.”

“I think I understand,” I said, though I did not.

Beatrice watched me drive, her mouth slightly skewed and sardonic. The desert encircled us, a vast charcoal amphitheater and the sky was a patchwork of stars and clouds that looked like torn rags. I caught a glimpse of Castor and Pollux as the pickup sped through a darkly beautiful but menacing landscape.

“He’s holding her back, you know . . . Adam. Eve is doing most of the work and Adam is taking all the credit.”

“Really?”

“She told me. I ran into her in the ladies room and then we walked together to the cafeteria, got some tea, and sat and talked for a few minutes. You men were still busy with the Pleiades—the Seven Sisters—while the real sisters were elsewhere.”

“And?”

“Eve’s not happy . . . she’s considering making a move to Mount Wilson or Arecibo, even. She’s brilliant and unappreciated. Adam is exploiting her.”

Beatrice sounded a bit smug with her inside information about our host astronomers.

“Adam seems like such a nice guy,” I said.

“He is but maybe not as nice as you think. Kind of like you,” Beatrice giggled, sporting with me once again. I let her comment slide. I was thinking of Eve. Though she wasn’t as beautiful as Beatrice, there was something sexy and alluring in Eve Atwater becoming a resident astronomer pretty much anywhere in the world, and in any place she chose that would allow her to pursue a major discovery.

“Nothing between them?”

“No, no . . .  she’s married by the way, her husband’s a welder, but highly sought after. He did a lot of work on the Primum Mobile complex. He was shooting out sparks I guess.”

“A welder? I would have never pictured her with a welder.”

Her head was in profile but slightly turned toward me as if she were staring on an angle through the front windshield. Fleck of her blue eye a pale turquoise.

Beatrice smiled to herself.

“She said she married him because he had strong hands.”

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