As I was guiding her eyes at the bright yellow light in the night sky, she exclaimed in surprise, “That’s Jupiter?” A grin appeared across her face. “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 Hong Kong, one of the most illuminated places on our planet. Remorse quickly grew, though, as I questioned at the time my choice of raising my daughter in a place where the night sky was, more often than not, a monotonous black veil for the moon to perform her monthly dance.
This window that gave way to the other reality we live in was barely open for my six-year-old daughter. The cosmos was suggested but not present. Instead, bright restaurant neon signs, illuminated skyscrapers, and giant advertisement boards lit to capture our fleeting gaze were 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 can be viewed as the most complex machines we have ever produced, machines that are meant to enrich and increase the quality of life of their inhabitants. But there are, of course, many drawbacks to urban life. Pollution, stress, and unaffordable lifestyles, to name just a few. Yet, the apparent disconnect between who we are and the greater reality that surrounds us is 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 to the heavens and is overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of thousands of stars illuminating the night sky, a connection is made. A connection to a great spectacle. Some see the fingerprint of Gods, while others see 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 instils humility, a virtue that doesn’t grow well in urban soils.
And yet, when my daughter looked up at the night sky, she often saw black emptiness holding a handful of stars. 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. 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 on space. The parent-child relationship can be one of the most profound and meaningful connections a person will ever experience in one’s lifetime. If my daughter’s connection is flavoured with star stuff, then hopefully, she will take note.
Yet, I knew that for her to be genuinely connected to the sky, it needed to be personal. Thankfully, I am friends with a professional astronomer based at Hong Kong's largest observatory. By sheer coincidence, my friend contacted me a few days after having these thoughts to see if I was interested in bringing my family to the observatory. Given that it is generally not open to the public, I jumped on the occasion, and after a few cloudy evenings had passed, we got into a taxi one evening and snaked our way up to the peaks.
When we arrived, my friend waited patiently at the front gate. Tall and graceful, he took us up a 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 a 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 at least the planets were visible tonight.
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 glances, such as the colossal size of it all. And yet, move gracefully, it did.
Taking my daughter by surprise, the entire dome also moved, groaning under its weight as it rotated to keep up where the telescope was being pointed. It felt like being inside a miniature cathedral, where serenity and a sense of wonder emerged naturally from our surroundings. My daughter took note as she had replaced childish excitement with the poise of someone who realizes they are in a particular place. And like a cathedral, the observatory also connected us directly to the heavens. And what a connection that was.
And it was here, helped by the giant telescope, that we got to see the planets. Mars was reddish as always, while Jupiter’s disk was yellow and bright. Its four large moons and the distant planets Uranus and Neptune were also visible: pale blue dots lost within the eyepiece. All these planetary bodies were exciting and intriguing and came with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’. Shortly after, the Moon appeared, breath-taking in her usual ways, and we even got to see a binary star system.
Yet, the moment finally came when the telescope was pointed at Saturn.
I knew then that if there were ever a trigger that could open my daughter to the greatness of space, this would be it. With my help, she climbed the tall ladder once more and peered through the eyepiece.
“Wow!” she exclaimed upon seeing the planet.
Upon saying goodbye, one of the astronomers asked her what planet she preferred watching tonight. Her reply was swift, “Jupiter because it’s like a lemon tarte.”
“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 essential 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 us, as 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 genuinely 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?