walking at night

This eve I’m walking briskly at night, trying to keep warm; typically it’s 25 C (~70 F) degrees during the day but drops to 5 C (~40 F) at night. I’ve just spent an hour and a half trudging with my heavy luggage from London Circuit, too late to catch a bus and too proud (or cheap?) to call a cab, to my new apartment in the Hackett neighborhood. On the plus side, it was a good workout, and so is this, only now I have a bit more attention to spare looking at the only scenery which remains visible: that above my head.

The stars above are unfamiliar, but they are plentiful. The moon, perhaps now in its waning quarter (it was near full when I landed), hasn’t yet risen. Streetlights in the residential neighborhoods, when not on the main roads, are fewer and farther between than in American suburbs, and with the shrubbery and surrounding trees there are frequently long stretches of near-darkness. Perhaps most remarkable is that there are stars visible throughout the sky, but a faint band of nebulous light spans the heavens. I’d bet my grocery money that this is the plane of our galaxy, and the idea that it should visibly manifest to me anywhere but in a far rural setting is marvelous to imagine.

The night air is cool and crisp, tinted with aromas sweet and smoky — at times more pungent, probably wood fire, but the stretches in between might just as well simply be desert. This doesn’t smell like California to me, at least not the parts I visited; it smells more like Albuquerque, or Tucson, just outside the high desert of the American Southwest. Smells are powerful mnemonics and I slip back to ten years ago, as a graduate student, pacing through the NSTTF heliostat field looking for frost on the mirror surfaces. Altogether a more innocent time, and one in which I took great joy in my connection to a universe much larger than myself.

Not to say that I don’t still take such joy. But it is one thing to marvel wordlessly at the bounty of the cosmos, and quite another to quantify it. Generally, as is necessary for me to feel good about my choice of profession, I find myself more in line with Pope than with Blake on the question of Newton‘s merits, and disagree with Walt Whitman’s characterization of “the learn’d astronomer” as one whose job is to kill the mystical wonder we feel when we look up on a clear night.  Yet I can’t help but feel that Whitman may have had a point — one must remember, when couching the physics of celestial objects in the (necessarily) dry and formal language of mathematics, what it is we hope to learn by doing so, what we can take back across to that cognitive mode in which we appreciate more viscerally the history of the universe and our place in it. For me they are indeed two distinct cognitive modes — that of analytical understanding, and that of mystically detaching the analytical faculty to strain to apprehend the essence of it all.

(Just as much to the point, Whitman’s poem seems to be about the arrogance of those who think they know everything.  The best scientists are all too keenly aware of their own ignorance, and it is by pushing against it that things are found out.)

For this reason, walking at night is one of the great pleasures of my life, one in which I used to indulge often in my youth in Virginia, but which I’ve missed a great deal in my more recent life in cities where I hear regularly of students and townspeople assaulted and robbed at night. That sort of story certainly should spur us all to commit to greater social justice, since the night sky is something we should all have the opportunity to enjoy without fear, whether we’re rich or poor. Once when visiting the University of Virginia as a prospective undergraduate, my host and I skipped the loud, alcohol-soaked “mixer” and she took me up the hill to the observatory. There was no public night scheduled, and strictly speaking we weren’t supposed to be up there, but that hardly mattered, and we spent a good hour or so in the dark together, lying flat on our backs on the cold ground, staring upward while the remnants of winter winds pulled at our nose.

An hour later, I’m trudging home again with three bags full of groceries — some bare essentials, high-calorie foods like peanut butter and trail mix as well as some fresher material such as apples, carrots and hummus, which require virtually no preparation (I won’t have much time this week). The stars twinkle. My hip flexors are voicing their displeasure with the ridiculous amount of walking I’ve done today (probably around 10 miles). The sole of my left shoe has worn through entirely and is begging to be replaced; the right shoe won’t be far behind. I’m so, so looking forward to that hot shower and to the sleep of the dead — the kind who rise at dawn, that is.


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Lifestyle, Mindfulness, Nature. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to walking at night

  1. Jason S. says:

    Richard, you make a good point about the difference between feeling awe before Nature on the one hand, drawing enjoyment from the process of quantifying Nature on the other, and the sometimes frustrating divergence between these two. Speaking for my own experience with science, which admittedly has limited overlap with astrophysics, I often find the pleasures of actually conducting science to be more akin to those I get from crafting things. Experimental design is a pragmatic matter of engineering trade-offs and building on the small incremental improvements of others.

    The reverence one feels beneath the stars, or when attempting to grasp the intricacy of the mammalian brain, is uplifting and wonderful, but one has to be careful not to go into science solely inspired by this feeling, transporting as it is. One of course has to also get a kick out of the endless tinkering and failure that goes into day-to-day experimentation and analysis.

    But even so, I’ve never thought of these as being completely distinct pleasures; I find great cognitive consonance between the unfathomable grandeur of the cosmos and the startling accuracy of our mathematical models in describing its behavior. And as a materialist, this triumph of empiricism brings me satisfaction which has an almost spiritual quality. What can be more gratifying than witnessing the success of mode of inquiry that obviates the need for recourse to metaphysics? (Not to imply that this “consonance” between natural splendor and our success in modeling it solves all mysteries; I don’t necessarily disagree with Einstein when he says that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”)

    That said, I have never been fond of “The Learn’d Astronomer”. I hear your point about Whitman’s possible disdain for cocksure scientific egos, but I still think the poem does more harm than good. My friend Scott penned a snarky but I feel altogether deserved rejoinder to Whitman:

    “When I Heard the Learn’d Poet
    by Scott Aaronson

    When I heard the learn’d poet,
    When the Freudian symbolism, the Biblical allusions, were ranged in columns before me,
    When I was shown the themes and styles, to analyze, categorize,
    and criticize them,
    When I sitting heard the poet where she lectured
    with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
    Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
    In the rational dry night-air, and dropped my copy of Leaves of Grass off a cliff,
    And correctly predicted that it would hit the ground in 3.82 seconds.”

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