Pictures in the Sky
September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
It was my 8th birthday, and five of my dearest friends and I had just returned from the movie theater (we saw “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) and were sitting around my kitchen table. It was time for that greatest part of having a birthday party: the present-opening. Five good-sized rectangular prisms of colorful paper lay in front of me on the table, each beckoning to me to open it first. My buddies added to the commotion, thrusting their boxes in my face. Ahh, what a great time to be alive! People were literally begging me to open toys and video games and Legos and…books? I should have seen that one coming. One of my friends, Mark Savin, was even at that age a budding meteorologist. While I bonded with other kids over such typical boyhood activities as Playstation, building things (and, more importantly, destroying them), and running around on the playground, Mark and I had always had a special connection. You see, we were both pretty bright little boys, took enrichment classes together, and could sustain long conversations even at that age about any subject imaginable. But our very favorite topics were hockey and the weather. I had introduced the former to him, while he introduced the latter to me. And now, on my 8th birthday, he had given me a fairly detailed book covering all the general areas of meteorology. Not your typical gift, but it has a special significance to me. The weather book still resides on my nightstand; I have long since forgotten every other present I received that night.
My favorite part of the weather book was the beautiful pictures of the different cloud types, precipitation, and optical phenomena that filled the last hundred or so pages. Each photo had its own personality, aroused a different emotion within me. I would turn to stratocumulus and imagine myself laying on a beach, watching the sun set and turn those clouds brilliant pink and deep purple and vivid orange. Cirrus Kelvin-Helmholtz sent me corkscrewing through a bright blue sky with the wings of a hawk, feeling the breeze lift me higher and higher from the mundane surface of Illinois. Cumulonimbus incus was awe-inspiring, its great anvil head lurking on the horizon, ready to bring thunder crashing down if I did not bow down to its prodigious strength! More than anything, the clouds brought me peace and confort. They were a family I got to know very well, a family that would put me to sleep on nights when I was restless, a family belonging to the realm of heaven and elevating me whenever I would flip through its pages. Eventually, I got around to reading the text of the book, but no words will ever stir in me the emotions I derived from looking at nature’s beautiful clouds.
A number of years later, I returned home from school to find a battered old book lying forlornly on my bed. The Stars, it read, very simply. I noticed that its author was H.A. Rey, the very same creator of Curious George. I furrowed my brow in confusion, wondering what this was all about. Then I opened the book and discovered an entirely new world. If the clouds had ruled the heavens, the stars were lords even above them. My eyes widened in amazement at the variety of constellations contained in the universe’s vast expanse, drawn ever so elegantly across a black canvas. I met Orion, the hunter and king of the southern sky in the winter. Cygnus stuck her graceful neck my way, and I learned to find her soaring toward the bright lantern called Vega during the summers. I laid back in amazement at the sheer size of the Great Bear in the north, with its backbone of the Big Dipper pointing me toward Polaris. Over time, I began to take the book outside and, using the star charts in the back, find my friends lighting up the darkness. I felt comfortable under their watchful gaze, knowing I could always guide myself by their glow. I took pleasure in showing others the secrets of the night sky and helping them feel as moved as I was by the beauty of the universe.
As a student, I do like science, I do like learning the details of how the clouds form and how the stars form and how life on Earth originated and so on. But it will always be the sheer beauty of the natural world that I find most attractive about science. In that sense, I still contain the wonder of an eight-year-old boy opening a weather book on his birthday.