July 14, 2015

Small ball, long rope.

In third grade, I entered a speech competition in which we were encouraged to use visual aids” during our presentation. At that time, I was a bit of a budding astronomer, and would pore over books about astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, so I knew my speech would have something to do with the cosmos.

(Aside: I once told an adult at another speech competition that I wanted to be a cosmologist when I grew up; that adult tried to correct me and say that the right word was cosmetologist” and that it was really interesting that I wanted to work with make-up. I tried to correct that adult in the most tactful way I could, telling him that cosmology and cosmetology were completely different things, but he refused to acknowledge that cosmology was an actual scientific pursuit.)

For that speech in third grade with visual aids, I decided to talk about the relationship between planet size, gravitational pull, and shape of orbit around the sun. For my visual aids, I tied various-sized balls to a piece of string and spun them around my head as I explained (and showed) how different sizes of ball and speed of rotation would affect the orbit around my head.

The ball for Pluto was small—Pluto was still a planet, back then—but the string was long; it took a lot of effort to swing it in a proper rotation above my head. This was illustrative of Pluto’s unusual orbit, but it was also hilarious to watch me, an overweight child with clothes that were a bit too tight, try to swing a small ball on a long rope over my head while keeping my shirt tucked in at the same time.

My shirt inevitably untucked itself from my trousers. I took first place in the speech competition. I’ve had an affinity for Pluto ever since.

You’ve all probably seen the photos of Pluto taken by New Horizons yesterday, and many of you probably spent the morning, like I did, staring at the livestream from NASA, watching as the spacecraft flew past the distant planet, sending glorious and stunning images back to us on Earth.

Twenty-four hours later, I’m still in awe of what we witnessed yesterday. Growing up, the only image we had of Pluto was this hazy bluish-grey dot; even illustrations were nebulous and based on generalizations rather than actual imagery. Even in my rope and ball demonstration in third grade, I dyed the ball an icy shade of blue.

Today, we’re able to see the planet in all its glory.

Space travel, for some, may seem like an unnecessary expense, but there are few things that incite as much awe and wonder, few human exploits that make us feel so big and so small at the same time, as being able to explore the heavens above and around us. That photo of Pluto will stay with me for a long time: it will remind me that Pluto is not just a little blue ball on the end of a long string, but most of all, it will remind me of all the amazing things we can do when we work together, and just how much more there is left to explore, left to do.