“When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
- When I Heard the Learned Astronomer by Walt Whitman
I have always found When I Heard the Learned Astronomer by Walt Whitman to be bittersweet in a strange way. The passion for astronomy that I developed while in high school lead me to double major in astrophysics and math in college. I now want to pursue a Ph.D in astrophysics. Like all those who study physics, I want to be able to accurately describe the world using some simple principles and some (rarely simple, sadly) mathematics. Just like the astronomer that Walt Whitman describes, I would love to find an elegant system of proofs and figures that can properly describe reality; however, I find that the real message that Whitman is trying to convey to his readers is that this isn't possible since certain things in life can't be modeled in such a way. The narrator becomes sick and tired of the lecture and must leave the room so he can go outside and soak in the mystical beauty of the night sky. I take this to mean that, while it is good that we can describe much of the universe using physics, we must also take a step back every once in a while to just enjoy the inherent beauty in life. Even if you're not a science person, the message of taking a break from the ordeals of life and just enjoying its beauty is one that every person can relate to. This is the very purpose of these travel blogs. The problem with this is that it is very easy to write or talk about taking a break from the mundane comings and goings of life, but another thing to actually be able to set aside time where you can just enjoy being alive. Well, last summer I had the perfect opportunity to do just this while I was participating in a research internship at the University of Utah.
During the Summer of 2014, I spent 10 weeks out in Salt Lake City, UT conducting research on the centers of nearby galaxies and the formation of black holes. I had never spent so much time so far away from my home in New York, so I had some serious doubts about going to a place where I knew no one and where I would be living with 3 other guys that I knew nothing about. However, I knew this was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up since these were the very topics that got me interested in astrophysics to begin with. So, I boarded a plane alone for the first time in my life and flew 5 hours to a city that is almost the polar opposite to New York.
Salt Lake City is almost indescribable. I'm sure that when most people think of SLC, or Utah in general, they immediately think of Mormons and social conservatism; all in all, this is largely true. The Mormon church has a HUGE influence on the history of Utah. For example, the streets of Salt Lake City are numbered upwards from 0 in increments of 100 with a cardinal direction afterwards (Ex: an intersection might be 200 N 400 E to mean 2 streets North of the center and 4 streets East). The obvious question that I asked immediately was “What's at the center, 0 0?” to which a local promptly responded “The Mormon Temple of course!” This is when I realized that the Mormons weren't only a large presence in Utah, but they have historically controlled Utah. There are tons of other examples of Mormon influence on the workings of Utah, most not surprisingly dealing with alcohol laws.
As I spent more time out there, I soon realized there exists an interesting dichotomy in SLC; all the years of Mormon control have slowly created a younger generation of Utahans who reject the conservatism of Mormonism. I was extremely surprised to learn that SLC has one of the largest gay pride movements in the country. This, alongside the fact that locally brewed beers are almost all above 8% alcohol, suggested that idea that non-Mormon Utahans have embraced a more socially liberal stance with respect to Mormon taboos such as being gay and drinking. However, you definitely meet the conservative side of SLC, too. While getting a haircut, the girl who was cutting my hair made small talk by asking “So what's your situation? Are you married?” A little caught off guard, I responded that I was only 20 at the time and that I was single. She then told me all about her husband who she has been married to for a few years. This girl was, at most, maybe a year or two older than I was! I couldn't believe she had already been married for years. To my surprise, I later found out that it is extremely common for teenage couples to get married and start having kids right after high school ends, which is deeply rooted in the history of Mormonism.
During the weekends when I wasn't stuck in a lab coding programs for my research, I had opportunities to go explore what Utah had to offer outside Salt Lake City. I camped alongside the banks of the Colorado River, rafted about 14 miles down the Colorado, hiked Arches National Park, hiked the ski trails at Snowbird in Park City, and got to spend a night at Bryce Canyon National Park. All I can really say about all of this is WOW. Utah should be one of the poster children for the beauty that the continental U.S. has to offer, especially since it contains 5 national parks. You always see pictures of the deserts of the West, with the huge red rock mesa's and tumbleweeds, but it is truly a different world when you experience it in person. The main thing that overwhelmed me when I first camped out in the desert (beside the staggering heat!) was how absolutely HUGE everything was. I have never felt physically smaller. I feel larger amongst the massive skyscrapers of New York City, than how I felt hiking in the desert next to a 1000+ ton rock formation jutting up vertically a few hundred feet into the sky. The distance scale almost plays with your mind. Objects in the distance may appear to be a few miles away, but when you realize that these objects are huge themselves, you slowly realize that those “few miles” are actually dozens, maybe even hundreds, of miles. I'm not an extremely outdoorsy person; I've always loved the outdoors, but when I was growing up my mom and dad were both homebodies who would rather stay indoors or relax by a pool. However, the experiences I had out in the deserts of Utah were transforming. I think that they would transform most people and I encourage anyone reading this to get out there as soon as possible.
The most breathtaking experience I had out in the desert was at Bryce Canyon National Park, which has been voted to have some of the darkest nighttime skies in the country. There was an astronomy festival going on down there and my boss was asked to give a lecture to the public. He asked me to come for the night so I could experience a nighttime sky that few places left on Earth can boast. We drove down during the day, hiked around the rim of the canyon (which is one of the most unique looking places in the world), and then got to look through a bunch of telescopes out in the desert at night. It was an astronomer's dream. Being from New York, one of the most light polluted areas in the world, the thing I was most excited to see was the Milky Way in all of it's glory. When I had camped out by the Colorado River it had clouded up both nights so I wasn't given the chance to catch the Milky Way then, but I vowed to see it before returning to the Northeast. Well, just my luck, it clouded up while we were observing at Bryce Canyon! A huge blanket of disappointment washed over me as I watched the sky turn from clear to murky grey.
As I watched everyone packing up their telescopes and leaving, I slowly succumbed to the fact that I wouldn't be able to see the Milky Way while out in Utah. However, at around midnight, right before we climbed into the car to drive back to our hotel, my boss pointed out that the sky seemed to be clearing up and that the clouds were thinning. This ray of hope instantly made me beg him to stay out a bit longer. When he saw how optimistic I was, he not only agreed to staying out a bit longer, but he suggested we take some flashlights and hike up a small hill that was nearby so we could really get a vantage point above the surrounding trees. By the time we reached the summit of this small mountain/hill the sky was back to its pristine condition and there, hanging silently overhead and twinkling in the cold desert air, was a backdrop of tens of thousands of stars with the swirling Milky Way painted across the entire sky. I was beyond speechless as we both stood there in absolute silence. In that moment, the only thing that existed was this amazing picture overhead. I saw objects with my naked eye that you need a telescope to see in the Northeast. I felt even smaller than I did on the banks of the Colorado as I stared ceaselessly into the dark sky. This is exactly what I had hoped for when I found out I'd be spending the summer in Utah. I felt very much like the character that Whitman describes in When I Heard the Learned Astronomer. Most of my summer was spent doing serious research that exhausted me and the exact cure I needed was to silently stare at the stars above to remind myself of why I began to love astronomy in the first place.
I really hope my story has encouraged you to want to explore Utah and the rest of the West. I can't wait until I can get back out there to explore the National Parks I didn't have time to visit during my 10 weeks. There is natural beauty out there that can't be properly described in writing. Everyone deserves to see it for themselves and experience the things I felt. I also want to encourage everyone to get away from the closest city they live near and go someplace where light pollution is at a minimum. We spend our lives looking downwards at our phones and other devices surrounded by flashy lights, so set apart some time to embrace darkness and instead look upwards and marvel at the wonders of our universe.