0x0f0f0f - Alessandro Cheli

The Telescope

Published 22 September 2021

Tags: #writing, #stories, #english

Leggi questa storia in italiano

I still remember that evening of a few years ago when I saw the man with the telescope. That day I failed an exam. I don't remember precisely which course, but I am sure it was a subject dealing with mechanical practice, devoid of any exciting details. I remember well that this drove me to ignore the regular meticulous studying required for the course: the same reasons lead me to now forget what it was about.

Me and Hossam E.O. spent the evening smoking under a small and rundown wooden gazebo in the garden of the university's mathematics department. Given the weight of the smoke and the humid summer air, Hossam and I headed into the main building to get water and a coffee from the vending machines. It was late at night. Probably two o'clock.

Between long, useless chatter and a cigarette after another, I noticed a small man, from which an excessive hump and a worn-out gait stood out. He was bent to carry a large tool with unusual shapes towards the garden. Both of them were leaning against a metal trolley. We slowly approached the man, intrigued and worried about the embarrassment that could have emerged in this situation. We found it difficult to approximate the age of this man, all bent while setting up a large, scientifically expensive apparatus.

A small rectangle protruded from the machine, on which few numerical coordinates appeared, dimly emitted by a screen, dim enough to be suitable for proper dilation of human pupils in total darkness. Hossam recognized the instrument. It was a telescope. It quickly became clear to us that the bizarre gentleman was a researcher in astrophysics, coming from the laboratories of the adjacent physics department. Hossam, drove by a mixture of enthusiasm and embarrassment – the same embarrassment that a monk would feel in front of master Nansen while he cuts the cat in two [1] – asked me if we could approach and ask the man what he was about to survey in the sky that night.

The astrophysicist turned slowly towards us, haltingly, with a lot of effort, tightly holding the cart, on which both he and the telescope leaned. He said nothing. He looked at us for a few moments and exhaled noisily before a dissatisfied smile formed on his face.

"Sorry!" Exclaimed Hossam (not worrying about using the correct, formal third person subject pronoun of the Italian language). "Is this a telescope?" He continued to ask. The scientist, after carefully scrutinizing us again, deduced from the books in our bags the fact that once we had finished studying, there was nothing left to do in the middle of the night than bothering his peaceful examination of the skies, a procedure that appeared to us strangers innately meditative and ritual.

"Come", said the researcher, aiming the telescope between the dense leaves of two pine trees and pointing to Hossam the eyepiece of the contraption. "It's Jupiter". Hossam didn't hesitate to look through the telescope. After a few seconds of looking at the planet. Hossam jumped back, visibly excited by the sight that has been impressed in his retina. I think that, although I could read immense astonishment in Hossam's eyes, caused by looking at the gassy giant from so close, his experience with the mysterious telescope caused in him different sensations from the strange feeling that the telescope gave me.

"Do you want to look too?", the researcher asked me. I nodded and watched Jupiter through the eyepiece. Although I've always had a strong curiosity for the universe and the world of celestial bodies during my childhood, I never had the opportunity to observe the sky through a functioning telescope, let alone from a modern telescope available for academic purposes. Jupiter looked like a simple circle in the dark, with some ocher and orange shades. I also managed to get a glimpse of one of the Planet's moons as well, although I don't exactly remember which one.

"I would like to tell you that I am a physics student, and understanding the universe out there has always been my dream. I always wished to become an astronaut and study astrophysics but ...". Hossam interrupted his attempt to consolidate a friendly conversation, perhaps confused by the total absence of a reaction in his interlocutor. The researcher remained silent and returned to calibrate the instrument. He dialed other coordinates, such that the telescope automatically re-aimed itself, with mechanical precision and with the sound of a thousand tiny electric motors, allowing us to enlarge another small point in another region of the firmament.

This time, he showed us Saturn. The planet looked to me as beautiful as Jupiter, but the dot was darker and of smaller size. The rings surrounded Saturn in a suggestive picture, while one of the moons was orbiting the space around this incredible sixth planet. I have always been intrigued by space, so I was aware of some details of the two planets. The large red spot on Jupiter, almost forty thousand kilometers wide, is a high-pressure storm that has lasted for many centuries. One could have gotten a slight glimpse of it through the telescope. I have always seen pictures of these planets through digital screens: nothing but filters, re-elaborations. The light coming directly from these planets, enlarged between the sophisticated telescope lenses, turned into an outrageously simple image. The feeling that you get the first time you observe a distant planet is beyond words. It's over there. A small sphere in the endless nothing, weighing billions of tons, seven hundred million kilometers away from the sun and slightly less from us.

Another researcher then approached us, still coming from the laboratories or the offices of the physics department. He was tall, wearing thick glasses and a carrying few, sparse chunks of hair on his head. He was dressing in severely anonymous clothing, composed of curiously looking, clashing colors. He approached us with sociable manners and unlike his silent colleague, he seemed excited to have found someone interested in their often forgotten, nocturnal work. At the same time, he appeared slightly annoyed by the context.

He then proceeded to explain to us why they had decided to bring the telescope out that night: a multiple star system would have been "clearly visible" in our slice of starry heaven: a very rare event, indeed. The tall scientist then let us look at the multiple star system. I have to admit that, as unique and special a view can be, I was not much impressed by the strongly blurred picture of two, or perhaps more, distant stars orbiting each other. Perhaps because it was the third image I saw through a telescope that night, or maybe because too many words were exchanged with the sociable astrophysicist, sweeping away the mystery and magic that accompanied the preceding moments.

Even though we observe the world through sophisticated optics, and despite the impossibility to define a clear, all-encompassing picture of the vastity of information that our minds constantly process, all this complexity often vanishes. Stratified in the circuits and lenses of a telescope, the uncountable details of a distant planet are reduced to a small orange circle. Perhaps, the beauty of things does not reside in their simplicity or sophistication, but in the act of destroying the complexity of infinity and how we interact with it: The engraving of unforgettable symbols within us, indivisible atoms, composed by the instants of time that crystallize and capture the vastness of how all things come together.

I decided to sit there briefly in silence, listening to their stories about the research of rare celestial bodies between the pines of the garden. I said goodbye to Hossam and I returned home.

[1] (The Gateless Gate, Mumon)

Nansen kills the cat