As I was guiding her eyes to look up at the bright yellow light hanging up in the night sky, she exclaimed in surprise, “That’s Jupiter! A real planet?” A grin appeared across her face, “That's so amazing. I didn’t know we could see real planets with our eyes! I can’t wait to tell this to mummy!” I laughed out loud and we carried on walking through the small but pleasant park nestled within the heart of Hong Kong, one of the most illuminated cities on our planet. Remorse quickly followed my amusement as I questioned at the time my choice of raising my daughter in a place where the night sky was all but a monotonous black veil, where the moon would perform her monthly dance alone, and more often than not, would be playing hide-and-seek with the numerous buildings surrounding us.
This window that gave way to the other reality we live in was barely open for my six-years old daughter; the cosmos was suggested, but not present. Instead, bright neon signs, illuminated skyscrapers, and giant advertisement boards lit to capture our fleeting gaze was burned onto her retina every time we would go out after the Sun had set.
Urban life symbolizes the peak of our civilization and how could it not be as cities are the most complex machines we have ever produced; machines that are meant to enrich and increase the quality of life of its inhabitants. But, there are, of course, many drawbacks to urban life; pollution, stress, and unaffordable lifestyles to name just a few. Yet, the obvious disconnect between who we are and the greater reality that surrounds us also a drawback, maybe the most important of all.
When a young child in a faraway village high up in the Himalayas raises her eyes and is overwhelmed by the scene of thousands of stars illuminating the night sky, a connection is made. A connection to something far bigger than we are. No one is immune to such spectacle. Some see fingerprint of Gods, while others, the majesty of nature on a grander scale. Whatever one’s view is, this connection forces us to consider our place within the vast tapestry that is life, and instills humility, a virtue that doesn’t grow well in urban soils.
And yet, when my daughter looked up at the night sky, more often than not, she saw black emptiness with a handful of stars upon which she had no real relationship with. Knowingly, I acted to compensate for this lack of connection. Every so often, when we were out, I drew her attention to whatever we could see in the sky on a given night which was either the Moon or a few bright stars. Also, the city’s space museum was one we visited often, yet it all felt a bit too abstract and remote for her.
I was somewhat reassured though as she already had a strong connection with this distant reality; a connection through me, through the books I write. The parent-child relationship can be one of the deepest and most meaningful connection a person will ever experience in one’s lifetime, and if my daughter’s connection is flavoured with star stuff, then hopefully, she will take note.
Yet, I knew that for her to be truly connected to the sky, it needed to be personal. Thankfully, Hong Kong is a resourceful place and there are always options; this bright, adrenaline-fueled city is surrounded by vast natural parks and quiet islands where one can evade the urban brightness and appreciate darker skies. Also, I am friends with professional astronomers who work at an observatory flanked on the side of Hong Kong’s tallest peak, it is in fact the biggest observatory within the territory. They have already invited me to visit them in the past and look through the half-meter telescope housed in the observatory. Would I be able to take her there one day I asked myself?
If I would do so, what would she see through the telescope? The Moon, this queen of the sky, would be truly bewildering for her; who would have thought that impact craters would be so mesmerizing? Jupiter and its Galilean moons where alien life might exist within their subsurface oceans, the polar ice caps on Mars, double stars, Nebulas, etc. There is so much my daughter needed to see, nevertheless, it was Saturn that I was most keen on. For you see, few things in life can rival the sheer amazement that is viewing Saturn and its ring systems for the first time through a telescope. Somehow, we, naked primates that have evolved on the African plains, are profoundly moved by the view of trillions of small chunks of ice laid out in a giant ring pattern 1.5 billion kilometers away. So, Saturn was the key. Saturn was how I intended to create this meaningful connection for my daughter….
Somehow, someone heard my feelings as a few days later, my astronomer friend contacted me to see if I was interested to bring my family to the observatory in the coming days to see the planet rich night sky. Given that the observatory is generally not open to the public, I jumped on the occasion and after a few cloudy evenings; my wife, daughter and I got into a taxi during a clear night and snaked our way up to the observatory flanking the tallest peak in the region.
When we arrived, my friend had been waiting patiently at the front gate. Tall and graceful, he led us inside the observatory and took us straight up the twisty staircase leading to the rooftop to the great excitement of my daughter who had quickly warmed up to this gentle figure. The scene on the rooftop was one of slight disappointment though. Overseeing one of the many districts that had spread out from this tentacular city, one could only see a handful of stars from the observatory rooftop instead of the hundreds I was expecting. My friend sighed and reminded me that the light pollution was gradually affecting their ability to see the celestial bodies; but that at least, tonight the planets would be visible.
And, then the moment came. We stepped into the dome located on the rooftop where the half-meter diameter telescope, gleaming white, was mounted on a thick yellow armature capable of moving the whole ensemble with a smoothness and grace that would not seem possible at first glance, such was the colossal size of it all. And yet, move gracefully it did. Taking my daughter by surprise, the entire dome itself moved as well, groaning under its own weight as it rotated to keep up with the telescope. It felt like being inside a miniature cathedral, one where serenity and a sense of awe somehow emerged naturally from the surroundings. My daughter took note as she replaced childish excitement with the poise that came from someone who realizes that they are in a special place. And like a cathedral, the observatory also gave us a direct connection to the heavens. And what a connection it was!
We saw reddish Mars, and yellowish Jupiter accompanied by its four Galilean moons, bluish Uranus and aquamarine Neptune. They were all interesting and intriguing and came with a set of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. The Moon was breathtaking in her usual ways, and we even got to see a binary star system, as well as a dim globular cluster tens of thousands of light years away.
Yet, the moment finally came when the telescope was pointed at Saturn.
I knew at that present moment, that if there would ever be a trigger that could open my daughter to the greatness of space, this would be it. With my help, she climbed the tall ladder that my friend had specifically taken to allow her to reach the great height where the eyepiece was placed upon the telescope. Having worked as a volunteer at an observatory in the UK, I had witnessed many times over people viewing for the first time the ringed planet through a telescope and knew exactly what her first word would be.
'Wow!' she exclaimed upon seeing the planet; I was right.
'I can see the rings,' she continued with a smile. And there it happened. Within this dome high up above the ground, the moment I have been waiting for had arrived. Now it was just a matter of waiting to see if the seed planted in her mind would grow. I helped her down the ladder, conscious of the meaning of this moment, and we continued exchanging with the astronomers who were more than happy to talk about their work but, the evening was turning into night and our daughter had school the next day. Upon saying goodbye, one of the astronomers asked her what planet she preferred; her reply was swift, 'Jupiter, because it’s like a lemon circle.'
'Oh well,' I chuckled to myself looking at the bright yellow star in the sky; 'Whatever works for her.'
Seeing such wonders in the night sky and understanding that we are part of something larger than ourselves is an important part of being alive. As more and more people live urban lives and look down at their phones instead of looking up at the sky, the immediacy of this connection is getting lost.
But I am hopeful. Astronomy is a rich and vibrant branch of science that has this rare ability to resonate deep within all of us, like few other branches of science do. And as my experience has shown, even when living in a vast metropolitan area, there are always ways to seek the cosmos if one truly wants to. My daughter though is lucky; a few months ago, we left the bright skies of the city in the far-east for the dark ones of the English countryside, and already, she has been amazed upon seeing the Milky Way and the sheer number of stars to be seen in the sky.
Wherever you live, cherish the dark skies, the observatories, and the passionate people who set-up telescopes in their gardens. For you see, these will take you to a place of wonder. And what better antidote for the times we are currently living through than that.