Freshman spring I took a course called “Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics,” which required a “working knowledge of elementary algebra” and met beneath busts of Kant and Goethe on the first floor of Linsley-Chittenden Hall. My grandma told her friends that I was majoring in rocket science.
I was majoring in English, actually, and despite my genuine interest in the third item on the syllabus — “the age and ultimate fate of the universe” — I’d come to LC 102 primarily for a QR in an off-the-hill location. The professor had discovered many more black holes than I had. I knew this, and yet I’d sometimes just space out or look to the window where the stained glass toes of the figure allegorizing Music looked bright and strangely realistic.
As a senior, I sometimes wonder — what was up with satisfying my distributional requirements? I remember very little about the universe, despite taking virtually the same course — ASTR 170, in LC 211 — my junior spring for a Sc credit. And so this week, I decided to check a few items off my bucket list that pertain to the astronomic interests apparent on my transcript. I would go to science. Science had already come to me.
My first stop was a windowless office in KGL where I’d scheduled an appointment with meteorite archivist Barbara Narendra. A meteorite is bit of rock or iron that flames through earth’s atmosphere and is recoverable after its impact on the ground. Narendra has been working with the Peabody meteorite collection since 1965 and thinks meteorites are better than dinosaurs.
The drawers in Narendra’s office have labels like “Pacela to Pulturk” that list the places where the meteorites were recovered. Meteorites come in three types — stones, irons and stony irons, also called pallasites, which when cut in cross-section display gorgeous crystal patterns. Narendra showed me a meteorite from the moon, a meteorite from Mars, a rock found by a muskrat hunter in 1890 in Homestead, Iowa and a picture of the bruised midsection of an Alabama woman who was hit by a meteorite after it came through her roof and ricocheted off the radio in 1954. She didn’t get to keep the meteorite because she was a renter.
Like in ASTR 160, when I became fascinated by the drama that surrounds booking a stay in a coveted South American observatory tower, I focused in on things a scientist would call peripheral. Prodding Narendra toward historical narrative, I learned that New World meteoritics got its start at Yale. The first meteorite recovered in America fell on Weston, CT in 1807 and was immediately claimed by Benjamin Silliman. He donated it to the Peabody, and by the 1890s the museum had acquired many more specimens from H. A. Ward, a famous naturalist and mineral dealer who was known to keep meteorites in the tails of his coat.
Only four meteorites have ever been recovered in Connecticut. Strangely, two fell on Wethersfield, just eleven years apart from one other. One crashed through the ceiling of the couple called the Donahues – Naendra shielded them from reporters and later met with them for reunion brunches on the crash’s anniversary for more than 20 years.
From KGL, it’s a short walk to the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium, a multi-domed beige building nearby the Yale Farm. The planetarium show I came for turned out to be for children, but I didn’t care. The Seven Sisters are closer to the moon tonight. On the Spitz SciDomeHD system, the astrophysicist rotated the sky from east to west, skipped the time to 9 PM when the shadow of Io will cross Jupiter and turned off all the light pollution so we could see the stars.
Encouraged by the reclining chairs and the inspirational (or Christian?) music, I recalled something I had forgotten from my freshman year: I am lying in the Silliman courtyard, it is incredibly humid and a group of us are looking up at the orange skies of New Haven, trying to count stars into double digits.
As a child in the planetarium cried, I imagined turning off my strongest memories and seeing a set of lost or obsolete Yale knowledge emerging from the background like the — sorry, I can’t help it — Milky Way. Was my QR knowledge there somewhere, brighted out but still recoverable? Um, not really.
And yet, when the astrophysicist coughed and said how many light years away another star is, I felt muscle memory setting in as I wrote, in shorthand familiar from a pile of carelessly completed problem sets, “4000 lya.”