Walking up to the observatory for the first time, I was sure that I was lost. It was dark and as I passed Yates; there did not seem to be a path. I could vaguely make out the sound of trickling water as I got closer, but otherwise, the area was silent. As I wandered up to the door and rang the bell I debated leaving — there did not seem to be anyone around. But suddenly the door flung open, and I stepped into the world of the observatory.
Georgetown’s Heyden Observatory was finished in 1843, and is filled with treasures ranging from a 12-inch telescope installed in 1888 to assorted astronomy almanacs dating back to the 1850s. Now, the observatory serves as a secluded haven away from the hectic pace of Georgetown’s campus, a step back from the stresses of classes, homework and work. With a view of the garden and the woods nearby, the observatory is more than just a study break: It is a peaceful escape.
Humans have always been fascinated by the study of the sky, and today, peering at the planets offers a unique perspective into the world around us and the universe beyond our atmosphere. The Greek playwright Sophocles once said: “Astronomy — impossible to understand and madness to investigate.” Each time I look into the telescope and see nothing but a simple dot, I think maybe he was right.
At the same time, something draws me back to that dot, back to the telescope fixed on a planet thousands of miles away, back to the contemplation of the universe. My experience at Georgetown thus far has taught me that it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the minutia, in the minute-to-minute responsibilities that drive my day. But the observatory reminds me of how much more is out there.
It is a constant reminder for me that the little red dot I see in the telescope is not simply a dot, not simply what my limited perspective can show me. Instead, it is Mars — an entirely different world; a planet hurtling through space at thousands of miles per hour; a planet with rovers crawling on its surface, yet untouched by humans; a planet we might one day visit.
I have always been fascinated by stargazing — but it was not the stars that fascinated me. Rather, it was the stargazers. Why, I thought, did people have the patience to stare at a sky full of incoherent dots? But through the Astronomy Club, I quickly learned stargazing only seemed strange to me because I did not understand it. Like someone examining a map of a foreign place, I did not know how to read the stars, nor did I understand the stories behind them.
Many of the constellations today bear names from Greek mythology and stand as symbols of heroes long past. When I look at the stars, I am reminded of these heroes; of Orion, the greatest hunter on earth, defeated by a tiny scorpion; of Cassiopeia, destined to spend half her time humiliated, upside down in the sky.
I am reminded of the nameless people who recorded these stories, the people who kept track of the stars before Google Sky Map. I think about how the light of any star I am seeing is millions, if not billions, of years old, and has reached through space for all that time, just to find its completion here, bouncing off our retinas.
So is astronomy madness, as Sophocles thought? It often seems that way, especially when we have so much here on earth to focus on. “This seems like a waste of time,” I think sometimes, remembering that I have papers to write, notes to study, work to do.
But still the pursuit of astronomy brings something into my life that papers and notes and work do not: a sense of awe and a rewarding shift of perspective, a reminder that so much more exists out there than we can see.
LAURA CARON is freshman in the School of Foreign Service.
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