Dreams And Visions Of The 1987 Supernova kiwiconnexion practical theology
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Hi there, welcome to Far Country Tall Tales
and True #talltrue tales. I’m David Bell Ever since I was a boy, maybe nine or ten
years old, there was one thing I wanted to see more than anything else. But like all
childhood dreams it was eventually forgotten. It died a natural death. New ideas came along,
so it died a natural death. Years and then a few decades sped by. Then, unexpectedly,
it all changed. A dream 170 million years in the making came back to life. That day was February in 1987, exactly thirty
years ago. My dream was to see a supernova, and not only that but to look at it through
a large telescope. What had sparked it it was the simple fact when my father took me
for walks before bedtime, and we looked up at the night sky, he pointed out planets and
constellations but I couldn’t see what he meant. The heavens were all a blur. Spectacles were prescribed. The first walk
I had after that, I saw an enchanted universe. Questions bubbled to the surface. And I learnt
about supernovas, and how they were by no means uncommon in the vast time scale of the
universe. But, as far as human beings are concerned, they are exceedingly rare events.
Every 400 hundred or so years, a star will go nova, flaring into brightness, and a few
will go supernova. The occasion of a supernova is quite momentous
for astronomers. Who will be the first to discover the change? Because as soon as it’s
found it will become an object of much attention. Albert Jones, an amateur astronomer in Nelson,
New Zealand, and a professional Chilean astronomer are jointly credited with first the 1987 supernova. As the weeks went by, it grew brighter and
brighter. Even in my tiny little backyard telescope it was a fine sight, a fiery orange
red pinprick of light. And so the boyhood dream was rekindled. A very rare event had
happened, I had seen it, but would I see it through a much larger telescope? In late April, there was an unexpected call
from the local astronomy club. Would we be interested in driving up to the Mt John Observatory
at Lake Tekapo. There was a chance to see the supernova? Before he had finished speaking I was saying
yes. A hundred times yes. The elusive dream was about to become a reality. Oh, but how
God, or the gods, do conspire against us. Just when we think we have it in our grasp.
Twelve or so hours before we due to set out, I got an attack of raging tonsillitis. The
trip was off, at least for me. A few hours after that the weather changed for the worst.
And the whole trip was cancelled. There were half a dozen very disappointed amateur star-gazers
that night. Nature takes its course in all things. The
tonsillitis was quickly cleared up with antibiotics, and as a few more weeks went by the supernova
began to fade. The dream had indeed eluded me, and I didn’t think nature would be so
kind as to provide another supernova in my lifetime. Then, just as unexpectedly, the Observatory
rang to say one of the professional engagements had been cancelled, and we could be accommodated
for a few hours that Saturday. You betcha! I couldn’t wait. When we finally arrived on top of Mt John,
the evening sky was crisp and clear. Around us were skiffs of snow, and just a few small
lights below in the village of Tekapo. Above us was the splendour of the night sky. Scorpio,
the prow of a great waka in Maori star lore, and below was Saturn. The Milky Way glowed
with a richness that can only be seen in southern latitudes far away from light pollution and
city smogs. We who live in or near cities are far removed from nature’s night and darkness. Inside the observatory is another world. The
dome rotated and the shutters pulled up. Eight tons of telescope moved with whisper precision
to a pinpoint location and one by one we went forward to view. First up was Saturn, surely
one of the most rewarding objects to look at. Today, contemporary astro-photography,
NASA space missions, and so on, have brought home to all of us the extraordinary beauty
and complexity of the universe’s farthest reaches in space and time. But looking at
Saturn through a big telescope still sends shivers down the spine.
When we had sated our appetite, the telescope moved again pointing directly at the Large
Magellanic Cloud. The moment had arrived. No, not quite. First the professional astronomers
wanted us to look at the Tarantula Nebula, a large lopped nebula, a beautiful sight in
itself. And just a fraction away from the supernova. After a minor positional adjustment,
we stepped forward, one by one, to peer in the eyepiece at the supernova.
As one who was learning his trade in dealing with words for my daily bread, I can only
say no words will quite capture that moment. Though stars appear no larger in big telescopes
than small, they are brighter. And at that moment the 1987 supernova was almost beyond
the point of visibility to the human eye. We were peering at the last stages of its
visibility even through quite a large telescope. It was the consummation of the dream. Was
it a fluke of nature that this star should go supernova? Yes. But was it mere chance
that at that time, I should live in Timaru and be able to visit Mt John Observatory,
and that a change of plans gave a window of opportunity to our group?
As I looked and looked and looked, I knew that the human race and the supernova were
akin to one another. From such explosions come the heavy metals of the universe, the
raw materials without which life could not evolve. Our genesis was in such explosions
and we were born of the interstellar dust. And to it, we shall undoubtedly return.
Suddenly I was lost in a surge of questions and feelings, and emotions pulling in different
ways. Chance? Mere chance? Perhaps. But how do we measure human worth and human destiny.
The words of David, the Jewish King, began to ring in my ears.
When I look at Thy Heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which Thou has established, what is man that Thou art mindful of him?
What I was seeing in that eyepiece was what I had seen in my mind’s eye as a child, who
had put on spectacles and seen as if for the first time. The supernova leapt and danced
before my eyes because of the atmospherics. There was a deep richness in the fabric of
those few moments. Finally I could savour no more. I had to let go.
The telescope and dome began to swing around again, pointing high up into the sky to Alpha
Centauri, the brightest pointer to the Souther Cross, our closest stellar neighbour. I followed
the direction with my naked eye. I felt extraordinarily happy. Yet at the same time, I knew I had
no right to that moment � it had come as an undeserved, unmerited instant of grace.
Although there was a grin of sheer pleasure all over my grace, inside I felt small and
insignificant. We are mere specks of nothingness in the vastness of the cosmos. Yet, David’s
psalm had spoke another truth. The night air of Tekapo had grown freezing cold, and I was
glad of the company around about. Thanks for watching. See you same time next
week, same channel.

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