Little Galileo

I bought my daughter a telescope for Christmas. It’s a 70mm refraction telescope with a 9x and 25x eyepieces. I confess I’d been hankering for something bigger, maybe in the 4-6 inch reflecting range, but they were much pricier, and all the reviews pointed to this as an excellent starter telescope. I also knew it was powerful enough to see Saturn’s rings.

So, we put it together, confirmed that the red-dot viewfinder was properly aligned, and waited for a clear night. And waited. And waited. That last week of December was pretty cloudy here in central Texas, but it did clear eventually, so we grabbed the telescope and headed out into the frigid night — well, at least as cold as it gets in this part of Texas, i.e. about 25F.

I had not done any preparation or research. I had no plan of observation. I had no star charts. Even the little star-map app on my phone was a bust since my phone is pretty poor at detecting its own orientation. But I figured we could just go out, point the telescope at some light in the night sky, and see what it was, a bit like those astronomers of the early 1600’s. Even with me living somewhat out in the country, they probably had much less light pollution than I did, but the quality of my optics were vastly better than theirs.

First of all, with 70mm of light-gathering aperture, the moon is way too bright to look at. Seriously. It wasn’t quite “do not look at moon with remaining eye, but I could see the moonlight blasting out of the eyepiece, illuminating dust particles. So, I gave up on any direct moon observations until we could add some kind of dark moonlight-filter to the setup.

Then I pointed it at some bright light about 20 degrees above the horizon. I used the viewfinder to line it up, then peered through the eyepiece only to find it empty. I looked through the viewfinder again to see that I was off target. I figured I must have bumped it, so I lined it up again, went to look, and damn, still nothing there. By the time I went to line it up again, I could actually see the thing moving. It was an airplane.

By this point, my nine-year-old daughter’s excitement is turning to impatience. It was literally — yes, literally — freezing out there, and all she had gotten for her troubles so far was to watch me play with her Christmas present.

I looked up at the sky, trying to find something interesting. I saw the constellation of Orion, and remembered something vague about how one of the stars in Orion’s belt was actually a nebula, or maybe a galaxy. Or was that in the sword hanging down from the belt? My daughter started pacing to stay warm.

A little bit up north from Orion, however, was a particularly bright light. I knew my compass directions well enough to know it wasn’t Polaris, so I figured there was a decent chance it was a planet. Given how far it was from the now-set sun, I knew it couldn’t be Mercury or Venus, and its color did not make me think of the red Martial soil at all. I didn’t think Uranus or Neptune could be seen with the naked eye, so I figured it was Jupiter or Saturn. Either one should make for an interesting peek.

So I pointed the telescope up, got down on the concrete of the driveway and peered through the viewfinder. I got the red-dot lined up on the bright light and took a look through the eyepiece.

For the first time, I was rewarded with not a blank field or some blinding moon. It wasn’t even a point anymore. It was a circle. It wasn’t a giant disk with swirling clouds and a big red dot, but it was clearly a circle. There were no rings, either, but this was clearly a planet, not some distant star.

I fine-tuned the position controls to center it, and handed it over to my daughter. “I think that’s Jupiter,” I told her.

Jupiter4moonsShe looked through it and waved her arms in excitement. I told her to be careful not to bump the telescope, and she calmed down and peered some more. Eventually she stood, looked back up at the point in the sky and asked, “What are those dots next to it?”

I looked up and only saw a scattering of other stars. “What dots?”

“In the telescope,” she said. “There are dots next to Jupiter.”

So I sat down on the ground and looked in the eyepiece again. Sure enough, there were four dots around Jupiter, two on each side, evenly spaced. I realized I had noticed them before but dismissed them as some optical artifact between the telescope lenses and my contact lenses. The spacing and arrangement was just too regular to be anything else. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many lens flare effects in recent Sci-Fi movies.

But no matter how much I blinked, the dots did not go away. Eventually they started drifting up out of the view as the Earth rotated, so I used the fine-tuning controls to bring them back into view. They were still there. I angled my head one way and another, but no matter what I did, they remained persistently visible and kept themselves aligned the same way.

That’s when it hit me. These were not optical artifacts. These were the four big moons of Jupiter: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

“They’re moons,” I told her. “Those are four of Jupiter’s moons.”

“Jupiter has moons?” she asked incredulously.

“Yes,” I told her all proud of passing on this knowledge, but then I realized that she was the one who had spotted them, not me. I had dismissed them as tricks of the light, but she had noticed them and wanted to know what they were. “They’re the four biggest moons of Jupiter, and you just discovered them.

She looked back through the telescope again solemnly. “Moons… cool.”

GalileoSince then, we’ve talked about how Galileo first saw them through his telescope just over 400 years ago. We’ve gone looking since, and seen them with different spacing, including seeing only three, figuring that one was either in front of or behind Jupiter. I’m trying to explain to her how you can discern that these different observations allowed Galileo to discern that they were circling Jupiter. The theological and political implications of that in what was then still officially an Earth-centered universe will have to wait until she’s a little older.

It’s easy for us to think of those early astronomers like Galileo as epic figures, locked in a struggle against the stratified philosophies of the universe. Yet, at the heart of it, he was just a curious fellow who asked the same question my little girl just asked. “Just what are those dots next to Jupiter?”

The Value of Doing It Wrong

We’ve all heard it. “Do it right the first time.” We’ve also probably heard, “Dude, you’re doing it wrong.” Then there are further admonishments to learn from other people’s mistakes, to listen to the experts, and that we should pay attention to our elders because any fool with half a brain knows better than to do it the way you are. Well, give them their due. They probably know what they’re talking about.

But… there is still a lot of value to doing it the wrong way first.

Now, before you all go skydiving with bedsheets or rewire your homes with twine, I’m mainly talking about learning a new skill, whether it’s hitting a baseball, playing an instrument, or writing a novel. So, don’t run off in pursuit of a Darwin Award. This is for skills where failure doesn’t kill you.

strikingoutThe first valuable thing that comes from doing it wrong the first time is that you’ve actually done it the first time. I can’t tell you how many people I hear talking about the things they want to do someday, as soon as they can take the time to learn how. They’re not actually going to try it out, sign up for lessons, or even pick up the necessary tools, but “someday”, they’re going to learn it.

How? By osmosis?

No. The best way — perhaps the only way — to learn a skill is to do it over and over. That means doing it that very first time, and almost certainly doing it wrong. You’re holding the bat too high. You’re squeezing the reed too hard. And for God’s sake, drop the prologue! Yeah, whatever… at least you’ve done it.

The next valuable result of doing it wrong is that you start to learn what failure looks like. Sure, we see the experts perform, and we sure know what success looks like, but stupefying failure? Not so much. So yeah, sending your bat flying towards the shortstop — not so good. You tried to play a scale, and now the dogs are whimpering. And maybe the sixty-four pages on the preparation of tea leaves distracts a bit from your political thriller.

Knowing what failure looks like is the key to moving towards success, an after multiple encounters with it, you develop a feeling for failure. You know its different shades. You can judge its severity. You can even anticipate it, knowing that the technique you’re about to employ is perhaps not such a good idea.

You’ll also learn the kinds of failure that you are particularly prone to. Do you shift your weight before the pitcher throws? Do you always botch the fingering combinations that require your pinky? Do you drop exposition into dialog with “As you know, Bob….” Sure, others have made these mistakes. Others have made millions of mistakes, and while you want to avoid them, trying to keep all of them in your head will paralyze you into inaction. Don’t stick your butt out too far. Keep your shoulder low. Don’t start the swing too early. Don’t start it too late. Watch your pinky finger. And avoid adverbs when bunting the clarinet!

No, you learn the errors you are prone to, and those are the ones you watch out for. All those other errors you don’t make? Just forget about them. Those mistakes were never part of your style to begin with.

fallingdownStyle? Where did that come from? It turns out that’s the other valuable thing that comes from doing it wrong. Some folks say you should study the styles of the masters: Babe Ruth, Benny Goodman, William Faulkner. While there’s nothing wrong with checking them out, the simple fact is that you’re not them. And more to point, they are not you. Their style might not work for your body, your brain, or your kind of story.

Instead, your unique path of errors and mistakes will set your style, because we all approach success from different directions. While some might see this as saying we all walk up with our own limps and stumbles, by the time we really know what we’re doing, those limps and stumbles have become stylish skips and dramatic rolls. These quirks might look odd and add nothing to our ultimate success, but they are part of what works for us, and they make us stand apart from all the Faulkner wannabe’s out there.

And finally, in rare cases, that thing we’re doing wrong turns out to be better than the” right way”. I point you to Dick Fosby, the failure who revolutionized the high jump. In high school, he could not clear the five-foot bar using the standard straddle method. He then attempted the upright scissors method, which made it look like he was having a seizure in mid-air. It was an improvement, but he still wasn’t doing well.

But then he started doing something wrong. He went over the high-jump bar backwards and landed on his back. This was completely inappropriate, and the only reason it was allowed at all was because the rules required the flexibility between the straddle and scissor methods. And yet, this quirky approach worked for Fosby. In fact, it worked so well, that he began winning competitions, and in 1968, he set a new Olympic record using what had become known as the “Fosby Flop.” Today, it is the standard high jump technique across the globe.

So, on the point of writing, feel free to do it wrong. Most of it will fail, but you’ll get better. Along the way, you’ll find your style, and you just might find something even better, a new way of doing things. Chances are you won’t find anything, but don’t avoid something quirky just because someone told you were doing it wrong. Storytelling is a big world. Who knows what’s out there?

Hell, you might even resurrect the prologue.