Oh, the things my mother has done for me. Taught me to read, taught me to throw a ball (Dad was overseas in the Navy at the time, y’see), made me an awesome Halloween costume every year from kindergarten up to eighth grade. It’s impossible to pick the one thing that was most important. No it’s not – it’s the reading – but picking the most important thing she’s done for me besides teaching me to read is fucking impossible. All the same, let me at least make a nomination: all throughout my childhood, from elementary school up through middle school, she took me to the planetarium.
That was important. We’d usually go the first Tuesday of every month, since that’s when they changed the show. Only during the school year, though; the planetarium is at the Board of Education, and doesn’t usually have programs in the summer. Back then it was free. Now I think they charge a few bucks at the door, but that’s beside the point – I learned more in an hour at the planetarium than I learned most full days of school. Not just about the planets and the stars – about how to view the world. I was curious about astronomy, and the planetarium only stoked that curiosity. Mom and I would try to get there early, and we’d always sit in the front row. It was a tiny place, probably only sat about 30 people at most. I remember presentations on Mars, on distant galaxies, on the history of the Earth, on Halley’s comet (which I missed seeing in 1986 to my considerable chagrin). Every show ended with an explanation of what was going on in the night sky right at the moment, which constellations to look for, how late to stay up and where to look to view this or that meteor shower – and if it was a clear night, I could walk outside when the show was over and see exactly what the guy with the laser pointer was talking about. There was the Big Dipper, or Taurus the Bull or Leo the Lion – not lights projected onto a dome, but real stars burning in the universe, farther away than I could possibly comprehend.
It blew me away as a child and it blows me away still, to think that all those little points of light up in the sky really are something, that they aren’t just put there for us to gawk at, that they occupy an immense and full universe. Thinking about things like that as a kid opened my mind to thinking about other things. If we can understand the universe, why can’t we understand each other – if we can understand the fucking universe? Curiosity breeds curiosity. Wanting to know more about the stars and the planets led to wanting to know more about the animals and the plants and various other organisms that live right here. It’s all the same universe, afterall. Pull back far enough and we all live in the same place, you and me and everyone else, the moon, the sun, all the stars, everywhere.
I downloaded Celestia the other day, and that’s what’s got me thinking about my planetarium-going days. That’s such a terrific program, and totally free. If you don’t have, I highly recommend it to you. Get it and get some of the add-ons at Celestia Motherlode. It’s almost too much fun, exploring a reasonable facsimile of the universe from the comfort of my girlfriend’s apartment. It reminds me of the planetarium, only without the busload of mentally retarded students sitting in the back, grunting in awe as soon as the lights were turned out and the stars appeared on the ceiling. Seems like they were always there when we were. I hated them at the time, but looking back I have more understanding. Unlike most of the uncouth bastards who talk during movies, at least those Special Olympians at the planetarium had an excuse.