Through a fortuitous combination of a Groupon deal for tickets to Lowell Observatory and my mom’s travel bug, we were able to travel up to Flagstaff for a weekend and take Rondel and Limerick to the observatory one evening while we were there, without worrying about a late night drive home or an overtired Aubade.
I had been to Lowell before, but not since before college, so I didn’t remember much, and it was of course all new to the boys. Paul and I split up near the beginning, and I went with Limerick who absolutely loved every inch of it. He sat through an entire 45 minute talk about the solar system, explored the old telescope through which Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, and got to see both Jupiter and Saturn through the massive telescopes set up for public use. (He was so cute looking through them – he had to climb all the way up the ladder to look through the view piece, and he kept pausing to tell me about everything he could see: storm bands on Jupiter, the four Galilean moons, Saturn’s rings, and some of Saturn’s moons as well, until the observatory volunteer told him that it was time to let someone else have a turn 🙂 ). Lowell also has a large globe that can display in three dimensions images of various planets and moons, and Limerick enjoyed experimenting with that as well.
I think both boys’ favorite part, however, was the Solar System walk stretching through the heart of the observatory grounds. The walk starts with the Sun and has a sign for each planet along with two bronze markers in the sidewalk denoting the aphelion and perihelion of each planet’s orbit. The distance between the markers is all to scale, of course, and reveals just how close together the rocky inner planets are compared to the outer gas giants. We’d done a smaller scale model in our house, but when you have to keep walking and walking to find Neptune, because the scale is larger, it has more of an impact. We did the walk through twice, marveling at how elliptical some orbits were compared to others (Mercury, for example, has a distance of almost 24 million kilometers between its aphelion and perihelion, while the near and far points of Venus’s orbit are only 1.5 million kilometers different), and probably would have done it again if it hadn’t gotten too dark.
While Flagstaff at the end of October is cold in the evenings, it was definitely worth it to be above the city in the dark, clear air; the boys had never seen the sky so full of stars, and I was able to show them the cloudy glow of the Milky Way arching across the night sky as well. It made me think of how humanity must have seen the heavens throughout history: a tapestry of light spread wide above them, telling the stories of their people, singing the praises of God. For both science – the desire to learn, to know, to explain – and story – the desire to remember, to understand, to give meaning – are fundamentally human and find a home in the stars above.