I ran into Ira Flatow early one February morning in 1997 in Seattle. We were about to enter the venue of the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a day of lectures. The host of NPR's immensely popular Science Friday eyeballed me. “You don't look so good,” he said, observing my greenish hue. “I don't feel so good,” I muttered before deciding to retreat from the retreat and return to my hotel room. That night I wound up in a hospital emergency room with gastroenteritis so severe that when the doctor lightly palpated my tummy I spewed, the last of many such upchucks that day.
My encounter with Flatow left me with an unshakable faith in his ability to communicate science. “You don't look so good.” Simple and accurate.
And so I sat in rapt attention on August 7 of this year when Flatow joined Scientific American editor in chief Mariette DiChristina for a conversation entitled “Teachable Moments with Science in Culture” at the Learning in the Digital Age summit, sponsored by this magazine and its parent company Macmillan Science and Education. Flatow told DiChristina about a teachable moment at his own home.
“Being a science geek myself,” he began, “I'm always interested in astronomy. And I was out with my backyard telescope. This is a few years ago. And my daughter was 14. If you have a 14-year-old, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. And the rings of Saturn were just beautiful that night—you could see it great. And I kept begging her to come out and look at this. And she said, ‘Oh, Daddy, don't do this, c'mon, I don't wanna go see it, you're such a nerd.’ I literally grabbed her hand, I pulled her. ‘No, I don't wanna see it! I don't wanna!' I took her head, and I shoved it to the eyepiece, and she goes, ‘Holy sh–t!'”
Flatow's story of the jaw-dropping (and occasionally profanity-inducing) effect of seeing Saturn's rings reminded me of my own telescopic encounter with the gas giant, about a decade ago.
I was at the beachfront apartment of friends in south Florida. The place had a balcony, and the balcony had a telescope. The scope was nothing fancy, the kind of simple refractor that today would cost about $100. A thick layer of dust indicated that nobody had looked through the thing in a long time. While the rest of the assembled schmoozed in the living room, I started fooling around with the telescope.
I know baseball stats better than I recognize features of the night sky, but by naked eye I can usually distinguish the twinkling pinpoint light of a star from the steady glow of a planet's disk. And off in the northeast sky that night was what looked like a disk. So I trained the telescope on the presumed planet and focused it up. I either said, “Wow,” or something more like what the younger Flatow uttered.
I went back inside and asked the owner of the telescope if he'd ever seen Saturn. He had not. He followed me onto the balcony, looked into the eyepiece, and saw the planet and its famous rings. His head jerked back. “Did you do something?” he asked me. I didn't even know what he meant. He spun the telescope around and examined the objective lens. “What are you doing?” I asked. He said, “You drew something on it.”
Once I stopped laughing, I showed him there was no image of Saturn unless the telescope was actually pointing at Saturn.
Both Flatow the younger and my Florida friend had no doubt seen photos of the planet, with more clarity and detail. But a glimpse of those rings with nothing between them and you but a magnifying lens is somehow different.
A scientist doing original research on rare occasions gets to be the first person in the world to find something or to know something. We science appreciators can get a taste of that thrill virtually on demand. Just grab a book, a rock hammer, a magnifying glass, a cheap telescope. You will not be Saturn's discoverer. But you may still be amazed when you discover Saturn for yourself.
This article was originally published with the title Saturnalia.