Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 19: "Outer Space"
You grew up in what was, at the time, the wealthiest county in the country, so perhaps looking back now your high school’s planetarium shouldn’t surprise you. As a student walking the overstuffed halls, worrying about girls, looking for your friends, frantically finishing your homework, fuming at your parents, listening to your skipping Discman, saying what’sup what’sup what’sup hey what’sup, averting eye contact, staying awake, staying alive, the planetarium was just another room. A particularly dope room, but a room. You won’t realize until later, in meeting high school survivors outside of your jurisdiction, what an oddity the planetarium was. How privileged your particular public school, how dope.
Astronomy was a senior science course, for all the dummies and burnouts opting out of AP Physics or AP Chem or Anatomy or whatever the pre-pre-meds took. The counselor enrolled you in the first block, 7:20 in the morning, twice a week. You loved the darkness of the room first and foremost, how completely black it got, how soothing that immediately felt walking in, day one. Sometimes there would be people who you found out halfway through the year were in your class and you had had no idea—the dark was that absolute. It erased faces, names, physical being with comforting ease, like floating in space sans fear. Red pleather couches were bolted to the floor in three matching concentric arcs facing one another across the circular room, all tilted back at 25 degrees for optimal outer space education. Soft music always played, through lectures, during exams, while entering, exiting, sleeping. Students slept often and at times through entire classes. How could they not? It was early, it was dark, they were practically La-Z-Boying. A twice-a-week meditation retreat for scuzzy wake-n-bakers and right-brained future English majors.
Like mostly anything to do with high school, and even though you liked the class well enough, you didn’t have a clue what you had until you didn’t anymore. The lights were on a dimmer. Mr. Brown played “Tubular Bells” and one time Pink Floyd as a joke and every day raised the stars to the William Tell Overture. His laser pointer tracked the same course at the start of every day, slowly adding more and more constellations, stars, and celestial bodies throughout the year. Consistency and repetition were key. Staying peppy, getting under-rested teenagers through 80 minutes in the dark first thing in the morning. It sounds exhausting. Once, he took the class outside to look through a telescope on the school’s broad lawn in the middle of the bus circle. Pointed to a planet in the early lightening sky, gave you all turns to investigate. You only remember this because you and a friend challenged each other to stare at the sun longer than the other and were kept after class when Brown caught you squinting upward.
And now, more than a decade later, you come across an article explaining why and in precisely what ways the astronomy program at your old school has been downsized. The planetarium’s still there, but only opens its doors for one or two classes a year, plus elementary school field trips that can foot the considerably raised bill. Mr. Brown—Steve Brown—gets the best quote when he says after he’s shut off the lights and turned on the stars, “there is always an ooooooooohhhhh moment.” Writing like this, of course, allows for no way to understand his inflection, but you think you get it. The ooooooooohhhhh moment is real. Though it faded over time, with class after class lumping into class after class as they will, it never fully disappeared.
And that’s the thing about school. You never would have thought you had this much to think about when recalling your slacker-stoner senior-level Astronomy course. But it’s all there, and it all comes orbiting back around, shining tiny lights through pinholes in your memory you’d forgotten had ever been pricked open. In the moment, high school was a slog with scattered periods of respite: house shows, wall ball, poring through records and record guides. Generally, you don’t remember it fondly. You aren’t sure you remember it at all, not naturally at least. Imagining distances is difficult because everything is so far apart, the science guy says. He isn’t talking about time, necessarily, but when the distances are long enough, time is the only subject—it’s all there is. Most of the stars we see at night are already dead. Most of what we remember never happened that way at all.
Our earth is big, and so is our solar system, sure, but look at the sky at night, the science guys says. He’s got an animation going of outer space. You are zooming farther and farther from the sun, your point of origin.
Some of those points of light aren’t stars, he says. No, they’re groups of billions of stars, but they look like a single point of light because they’re so. far. away. He can’t help but punch up his point, and who could blame him? It’s a big one, full of hard truths too difficult to fully grasp on a good day. Another big one: Eratosthenes's first measurement of the Earth’s circumference. First as in first ever, of all time, and conducted without ever leaving Egypt. This was 240 BCE. Eratosthenes heard that about 5,000 kilometers away there was a city where once a year, at noon, the sun sat directly overhead, illuminating everything, down to the bottoms of peoples’ wells. This didn’t happen in Eratosthenes’s hometown near the mouth of the Nile, and the distance between the two was not all that great. He studied shadows and geometric patterns and came to a conclusion about the size of the entire planet. That’s it—that’s about the length to which you understand it. Already the concept is daunting, its scope completely beyond your patience and rudimentary memories of trigonometry.
But it happened. And Eratosthenes calculated the tilt of the Earth’s axis, too, and the distance from the Earth to the Sun. He’s also who we have to thank for the leap day, and he served as Chief Librarian of the Library of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest in the history of the world. As a very old man, he became blind and so depressed by his inability to read and observe nature that he starved himself to death, a slow, hallucinatory way to go.
None of this means much of anything, really, other than that you feel a million miles removed from that history. It might as well be a distant star—beautiful to observe in context, completely forgettable when you aren’t looking straight at it. Imagining distances in space is difficult because everything is so far apart, the science guy says. It’s a hard truth, one we may never get past. Names and dates and constellations mean nothing unless we imbue them. And why would we ever? What’s the point? History is planets slowly drifting farther apart. You are the sun until you explode or shrivel inward, then only matter. Some of these points of light aren’t stars, but you? Only the brightest.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.