On the morning of September 11, 2001, I, like so many others, watched events unfold that I knew would forever change us.
That evening I found some level of comfort, of distance, in the views generated through the telescope housed at the Flandrau Planetarium on the University of Arizona campus. My effort to postpone this long-sought appointment was shot down by the telescope operator. The way he saw it, he said, looking through the scope wasn’t going to alter our country’s response to the death and destruction we’d witnessed earlier. Further, he pointed out, each one of us had to find a way to be resilient, to prepare ourselves for what was ahead. Using the big 16-inch reflector, he showed me several treasures of the night sky that helped to ease my anger, anxiety and immense sadness.
I’ve thought a lot about that day over the past several months. The pandemic and our country’s social upheaval have brought back many of the emotions I felt nearly 20 years ago. Like then, I still have so very little ability to impact anything. Much of what is available to me is simply about listening and learning and sometimes, just trying to put one day in front of another.
It has brought me back to that night at Flandrau and, most specifically, to the one sight that continues to bring me some solace in the midst of misery: the Albireo Double, a pairing of stars that provides, in a single glance, all that I need to broaden my understanding of, well, everything.
Throughout October, this wonder will be easily visible, riding high in the sky and gradually to the west. It helps form the long, graceful neck of Cygnus, the Swan. Within that constellation is the equally well-known asterism, the Northern Cross. Albireo is its base. The very bright star, Deneb, helps to guide the observer to the Cross’s apex, as well as to the Swan’s tail.
Albireo’s magic requires a telescope, for with magnification one can separate the bright yellow star from its dimmer, blue companion. The two stars are simultaneously complementary and contrasting. It’s a strange dichotomy. Is a double star singular or plural? Is it even fair for us to be able to see both stars when for most of mankind’s history, only one could be discerned? I don’t know the answers. And, more importantly, I don’t care. We routinely take the random locations of stars and the brightness and colors that are inferred upon them by the complex laws of physics and create myths and meanings that push the boundaries of imagination. That’s the literary and philosophical side of astronomy that is so joyous and welcoming.
In our daily lives we form clichés for things one step removed (or require magnification, a closer look). We tell ourselves not to judge a book by its cover. Yet, conversely, we say that beauty is often just skin deep. We’ll laughingly retort that an apple’s taut skin hides the rot underneath, while at the same time note that the best part of a peach is beneath its surface. Albireo begs us to look beyond, to not be satisfied with easy answers. It challenges us to move past shallowness, past contrivances that allow us to believe that we can’t do better.
On 9/11, gazing for the first time upon both stars that make up the Albireo Double, my stream of consciousness led me to Anne Frank and perhaps the most hopeful line from her diary. “In spite of everything,” she wrote, “I still believe people are really good at heart.” For me, on that day, despite the pain and anguish suffered by so many, there was still a reason to look for, and believe in, beauty.
Since the beginning of this year with all that’s happened and all that’s been said, with all of the constant disinformation and misinformation and all of the numbing, horrific statistics, I still want to believe that there is something special just beyond our present reach that brings illumination. I want to believe that we’re better not just when we expand our view of the heavens, but when we push past the ugliness and divisiveness and distrust on our own planet.
For some 20 years, the Albireo Double has shown me that all of this is possible, that sometimes with great effort and a desire to grow and be more than we were the day before, the reward is actually within our grasp.