Author: Phil Braudaway-Bauman
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:3-4
“Philip, you’re going to have to finish this telescope without me.” Upon placing the eyepiece into its holder near the top end of the scope, my father had just discovered we had erred in measuring the instrument’s focal length: the image was horribly blurred. At my boarding school’s request, Dad had taken a poorly shaped 8-inch mirror it owned, and meticulously reground and polished its surface by hand into a precise parabolic concave shape. And then during a week-long visit to the school, he and I constructed the telescope, clamping the mirror into its cell structure, securing the cell and secondary (angled) mirror into a 6-foot long aluminum tube fashioned by a local metalsmith, fitting the eyepiece to the side, and building a mount sufficient to hold the instrument, with two sledgehammer heads as counterweights to the scope’s mass. But time had run out: Dad had a train to catch to return home. The final task was left to me: “Drill three new holes and move the cell and mirror a couple inches up the tube; it should work,” he instructed.
I am not nearly the astronomer that my father was. A lifelong observer of the heavens, Dad was intimately familiar with its panoply of stars, the wanderings of planets, and intricate features of our moon’s surface, a knowledge acquired through years of observations through his homemade telescopes, including two constructed around 6-inch mirrors he ground and polished from Pyrex glass blanks. Celestial observation was, for him, a direct connection to the Divine, a reminder of the magnitude of God’s creative and generative essence. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?,” the psalmist asks, and in response I hear my father bear witness, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19).
“First Light,” it’s called – the moment a telescope is first pointed to the sky in astronomical observation. About 10 p.m., after Dad had departed and I had repositioned the cell, I lugged the unwieldy instrument out to the school’s central quadrangle courtyard, and strapped it into the mount. School Superintendent Bob Alter, out for a late night stroll, stopped to inquire: “Can we see anything?” I didn’t take time to select an object, just pointed the long tube directly up into the sky. To our naked eyes the Milky Way overhead was a broad swath, a whitewash brushstroke against the inky black sky. But in the telescope’s eyepiece the tiny field of view on which I had focused revealed an ocean of individual points of light, countless stars, just in that one little patch – our scope’s First Light.
After Dad died in 2007, Mom shipped me the scope he had built in retirement. Unfortunately, neither of us thought to remove the 6-inch mirror, which came unseated during shipping and rolled around unprotected in the 4 ½ foot long tube, scratching its finish and chipping the glass beyond repair. Having let it sit the past several years, I finally last week ordered a new primary mirror (factory-made; the idea of grinding my own from scratch being rather daunting!), and I’m going to try to piece everything back together. In this season of disruption, uncertainty, and loss there is something alluring in the idea of pointing a scope to the sky, immersing oneself in a reality broader and more wondrous than the imagination. Perhaps in those heavens I’ll encounter an element of the Divine as well, an encounter that I pray will illumine a Presence here on earth.
“God of the heavens, open our eyes to the wonder of your creative presence in the universe, and in our own lives. May we attune our hearts to your regenerative love, that counts even us, mere mortals, as worthy of your care.”