Tuesday, December 21, 2004


The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage.
-Mark Russell

I remember the first time I saw the planet Saturn through a powerful telescope. It was at the University of Denver's Chamberlin Observatory . The observatory was build in 1890 and houses a refractor type scope that measures 28 feet long and has a 20 inch wide lens. The observatory is used for research and learning but on Tuesdays and Thursdays the university holds Public Nights when everyone who wants to is invited to look through the scope.

When I first stepped into the dome room I was surprised by the size of the scope. It loomed over us as we walked over to the wooden ladders that lead up to the observation platform. The ladders are connected together by the platform set between them. The whole thing leans against a railing that runs around the inside of the dome about 12 feet off the ground. This allows the platform to be moved around the telescope without getting in its way.

The night I went the main event was Saturn, in fact, it was the only event because of the number of people that had showed up. We took turns climbing up the ladders, stepping on the platform, looking through the scope, and then climbing back down the ladders. When it was my turn I carefully climbed up my ladder and stepped onto the platform and then peered through the eyepiece. I was surprised by what I saw. First, I did not expect the view of Saturn to be so sharp and clear and, second, I did not expect Saturn to be black and white. I had forgot that amount of light coming through a scope is not the amount your eyes need to see color. As I stood there looking at a tiny perfect Saturn I thought how cold space looked. I also thought how dead Saturn looked. And I thought that the view was so clear it looked like someone had pasted a small black and white picture of Saturn on the lens.

When my time was up I climbed back down the ladder. Right behind me and next in line to climb up and look through the scope was a ten-year-old girl who had come with her father. I watched her as she slowly climb up the ladder and stepped onto the platform. She stood there looking thorough the scope for her allotted time and then slowly climbed back down to where her father waited. When she reached the floor and stepped off the ladder her father asked her if she had seen Saturn. She nodded. He then asked her what it looked like. She looked thoughtful for a moment and answered, "It looked like someone had pasted a picture of Saturn at the end of the telescope."
I started laughing and blurted out,"That's what I thought!"

My first look at Saturn though a telescope was such a trill for me that, even though I have seen it many times since then, I still get that same thrill each time I look at it through an eyepiece.

(Thanks to Blue Witch for writing about her birthday present- that lead to this post.)

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