The Butterfly Nebula Part 3 — Fragment

September 30, 2016

In the fall of 1980 PBS Television ran the mini-series, “Cosmos” with Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan. Overnight, Brainchild Scientific was busier than it had ever been in the 18 years since I’d started working there. Telescope orders were pouring in, and a great number of people—would-be astronomers and their families—walked the floor and asked myriad questions about astronomy and telescopes. The show’s popularity was undeniable, and I tried following it at home whenever I had a free minute. Gladys and I were so busy with Ramona that couldn’t always catch an episode of “Cosmos” between diaper changes, cleaning, and foraging. My ecstatic mood over “Cosmos” caused a minor conflict on the domestic front.

“But you know all this stuff,” Gladys protested. “and it’s somewhat dumbed down or certainly below your level of knowledge.”

She was right, but the beauty and excitement of the show for me was that popular culture had seized upon astronomy. Astronomy, thanks to Carl Sagan, had become cool and fun, and Sagan was a master popularizer. He put his erudition and passion on display without talking to his audience. In the style of the best science teachers, professors and popularizers through the ages, Sagan dreamed and imagined and made the audience dream along with him. He deftly and creatively narrated the history of Astronomy and the great figures and discoveries (Galileo, Tycho, Copernicus, Hershel, Einstein, etc.) and in spite of the distance we’d come in our understanding of the heavens, he reminded us that we were still more or less in the infancy of our knowledge. Gladys was right about my already knowing a lot of the nuts and bolts, but the show had offered validation of my love of astronomy and the business of making and selling telescopes. With “Cosmos” I lived another birth in my soul to enhance the births of my daughter and son.

But I was so busy with the store and parenting, that I sometimes fell asleep in the armchair before an episode of “Cosmos” had ended, and I was reminded of the “life stuff” which can and does interfere with major astronomical events. I recalled that 11 years earlier I’d gone through a similar period of attention deficit, during the first moon landing though for an entirely different reason. Back then I’d been doing a few drugs, hanging out with college kids and having sex with co-eds. While my mind back then had been elsewhere, in the present my focus was on being a father and everything it entailed. Yet these two astronomy events weren’t really in the same league. Apollo 11—the first moon landing—was historically huge, monumental, “a giant leap for Mankind. . .” whereas “Cosmos” was still, at bottom, an entertainment and marketing juggernaut. What they shared was a moment in time when the stars and space exploration loomed large in the public imagination, and while I had spent most of my adult life engaged in amateur astronomy and telescopes, I found myself disconnected during these larger collective events. During the big events I’d been tricked into “living.” No small thing. Any look into the heavens takes your gaze away from earth and vice versa, and one can never really be in those two places at the same time. An added irony with Carl Sagan and “Cosmos” was that I’d often been missing the phenomenon while indirectly being in the service of its success.


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