How I got into Astronomy

Photo by Yui Hasehawa

When I was nine, I formed a grand plan of sending my dad into orbit.  He was going to live forever; I would make sure of it myself.  My plan materialized in the aftermath of watching Interstellar three full times in theaters. I was fascinated by the sheer complexity and overwhelming potential of astronomical discovery relayed in the movie.  But more important, there was the physical dynamic between space  and time: if Matthew McConaughey returned from outer space having defied everyone else’s age, so could my dad.  So, that was when I, in all my childlike simplicity and optimism, decided that I was going to send him into orbit in a spaceship approaching the speed of light (taking advantage of special relativistic effects), so that he would effectively evade death and stay at the robust age of 50 forever.

It’s been five years since, and as much as I would like to attribute my dad’s present youthfulness to my grand plan, I have realized that much of what I dreamt of is physically impossible…for now.  But the movie remains one of my greatest inspirations that fuels my thirst for knowledge and excitement for the future. I’ve spent my time delving into astronomy, learning about celestial bodies: their names, their location, their structure, their formation.  There is something beautiful about the fact that I was studying these objects so detached from my life in great depth — Ceres, Makemake, Io, Eris, Phoebe, Mimas….

Human life was so relatively minuscule in comparison that the everyday problems no longer overwhelmed me; I basked in their immensity and vastness.

Yet while delving into my journey of planets, exoplanets, moons, asteroids, comets, I felt alone in my passion among my family and friends  The more I read, studied, researched, the more I realized that there was a missing link of tangibility.  I couldn’t only look through pictures from the Hubble Telescope and watch Carl Sagan’s documentary and read Bill Bryson’s books and go to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Rose Center for Earth & Space — I had to experience finding a star myself, to look through the lens of a telescope myself, and revel in my own precision and perseverance.  That’s when I discovered the art of observing, through the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

I first heard of AAA when I was at Lincoln Center for a music lesson.  There were two telescopes set up within close proximity of each other, some distance away from the center water fountain: one had a thick, shorter lens that I now know is called a Schmidt-Cassegrain, and the other had a long, slim tube, which was a refractor.  I looked on as the owners of the telescopes — a tall, composed man and his shorter attentive colleague — aligned their lenses with immense patience and precision: peering into the eyepiece, adjusting through the finder, looking up at the sky, and repeating this process numerous times. There was an air of deliberateness and peacefulness that surrounded them, a different rhythm from the bustling cars and rowdy city crowds on a late Saturday evening.

Later I would learn from them that this was a public observing session set up by members of AAA in an effort to inspire the public about the wonders of astronomy. They let me peer through the respective telescopes, and for the first time, I was able to see directly Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its cloud bands, and most important, Io, a tiny, tiny speck on the telescope.  I was blown away by how everything that I had studied about Io — its size, its orbit, its geology and volcanism — suddenly seemed to come to life!  That very night I signed up to join the association and convinced my dad to buy me a telescope six months in advance of my birthday.  Thanks to that fateful encounter, I have been a member of AAA for about a year and a half now, and over time, I’ve been able to fill my void with a new sense of companionship, warmth, and inspiration among like-minded colleagues who are willing to take a breather from their everyday lives to feel and appreciate the beauty of everything in and beyond the night sky.

I think it’s time for me to pay it forward, to reach and inspire others through the organization the way I have been inspired.  As with any family, the Amateur Astronomers Association needs constant growth, which is why in the present and in coming months there is an agenda for raising awareness and expanding membership.  There are currently 600 or so members — amid 8.3 million busy, occupied, fast-and-furious New Yorkers, unaware of this amazing organization and the beauty behind astronomy.

But in true amateur astronomy fashion, we’ll take this slowly, patiently, steadily — one article, one observing session, one ambitious kid at a time, to help change the lives of many more and shape the dreams of the brilliant younger generations to come.