Discover more from Love Letter Day X
Phoebe Waterman Haas and the Lick Observatory
I wrote a speech I never got to deliver, and want to share this for the friend alluded to in the first graf as an example of how I can be inspired without direct discourse; how to trust the buoyancy of allusions.
[April 22, 2022] As a writer, I believe in the power of stories, and never take for granted a good allegory. I told an allegory to a friend recently about the difference between astronomy and astrology. It resonated a chord when it returned to me like an echo in my research on a historical figure in Philadelphia.
I had enrolled in an astronomy course in college thinking naively I would learn about constellations and stars, my eyes wide with wonder thinking about the fabric of space time. Quickly, I learned that this was a breathlessly difficult course in higher mathematics and physics. I learned how to measure the distance between stars using equations that were more letters than numbers. For a self-professed creative thinker, such a data-centric class proved oppressive, until one day we did field work and visited the Lick Observatory near Mountain View, California. We left at 9pm and returned around midnight, a detail adding much needed intrigue to my math class.
Observing the sky through a high-powered telescope and understanding the fundamentals of its machinery was an absolute epiphany. I may have sought the adjacency of astronomy to astrology at the beginning of the semester, but by the end I was fully in the thrall of the question: how? How on earth…? It was in that moment at the Observatory when I saw literal stars through a telescope (well, a monitor displaying what the telescope collected) that I understood the full ecosystem of the sublime. And the telescope itself was monumental. The tools of understanding blew me away and it hit me how critical it is to have both a view of the universe and a means of understanding how it can be seen.
As I deepen my assumption of the role of a local nonprofit leader, I find myself excited in the exact same way again--eager to parse the arts and culture ecosystem within a universe balanced precariously between philanthropy, public works and education.
The cultural populace grows in Philadelphia both because of awareness of the field and awareness of the self. I believe with every fiber of my being in the integrity of self actualization, and believe in the dignity of all art, working with people on acknowledging their convictions before convincing them to change. I endeavor to understand the distance between constellations but always know that the distance is calculable; that the threshold can be franchised. We say things are astronomical when they are big, but “astronomical” just means it can be understood.
The historical figure:
I was gobsmacked to learn the story of Phoebe Waterman Haas this week. The first American woman to earn a PhD in astronomy from UC Berkeley, who eventually founds the William Penn Foundation. Learning of the fact that she earned her academic distinction through study at the Lick Observatory was such an amazing coincidence. I had just told my friend about the telescope, and now I had run into a person responsible for its design.
I must admit to needing small doses of magic such as this. Art is magic, it inspires action. While it is vital to have the appropriate tools and information to understand the universe, it actually takes moments of inspiration, magic, to propel one to learn. Without magic, all of the information in the universe is useless.