Monday, August 4, 2008

Jupiter Rising

Friday night I was peacefully eating a bite of supper and watching a little television when I noticed my boys were busy with something out in the front yard. A few minutes later in comes my younger son Michael (5) with a little bit of a disappointed look on his face. "Dad," says he, "can you help us find the star we're trying to look at? Jimmy can't find it."

"Hold on," I told him, "I'll be out there in a minute."

Sure enough, the boys were outside with the telescope. It wasn't quite dark yet and my first reaction was to tell them that it was still too bright to see any stars. Then I noticed that one star was visible just over the horizon toward our west(?) Jimmy was busy getting frustrated because he could not get it in his viewfinder. "That's not a star, that's a planet," I said, showing off just about the sum total of my astronomical knowledge.

"I know," said Jimmy who is about to turn twelve. "That's what I wanted to look at. What planet do you think it is?"

"Probably Venus," I guessed.

So I had him bring me out a chair and I sat down and tried for a good while to find the planet in the telescope. This was not as easy as it may sound as the telescope is a bit rickety on its tripod stand and it tends to not want to stay where it is fixed. Just before it was my turn to get frustrated I struck pay dirt. There was a large, bright ball of light in my lens, but out of focus. I adjusted and it got smaller and smaller until there was a tiny planet looking back at me. I was surprised, nearly stunned actually. I had not believed that the telescope would show something that clearly. I looked again. "This is not Venus," I told Jimmy. "It's Jupiter." What surprised me is that I could see it clearly enough to distinguish which planet it was. But the identity was unmistakable. I could make out the colors and the horizontal stripes. Jupiter.

The boys took turns looking at it breathlessly. I wasn't certain, but those tiny dots which seemed to be surrounding it, could they be moons? Jimmy ran and got his star book and confirmed that, yes, Jupiter was viewable in the night sky during the month of August from just before to a few hours after dark.

What excited me was how excited they were about it. Of course, Michael is excited about anything that excites Jimmy. It's a younger brother thing. I took advantage to encourage Jimmy about a possible career field in astronomy. I want him to know that the whole world is open to him as a possibility and that his only limitations are those he places upon himself, so I'm always doing this. Michael piped up, "Yeah, and I'm going to Mars."

"You are?"

"Yeah," he said matter-of-factly. "I was watching the Backyardigans the other day and they flew to Mars in a spaceship." It was as if it were commonplace.

"Well, you just might," I told him.

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