Billions of exceptions


Mindy Smith sings wistfully, “Tennessee may not be what everybody needs, but it’s good enough for me.” I feel the same way about our little nearby star, which shines on all that matters on the planet I like to live on with those I love. Last night I had the opportunity to compare it to a few countless billions of other stars at the South Africa Large Telescope complex in the high dry air of Sutherland. If one is ever to be humble, this is the place to get in touch with scale and time.

The star among the many stars is the Southern Very Large Telescope (SALT), the largest the Southern Hemisphere at 11 meters. Open only 5 years, it is a time machine reaching into the aching spaces of what is there to know. And there is a lot. For instance, they’ve learned about binary stars. About half of what you look at in the dark are not one, but two or more oddly dancing ensembles of bizarre varieties. SALT has found one called a “catastrophic binary” in which a dense small star sucks the volatile gasses off the its companion until it eventually becomes unstable and explodes into a supernova. Perhaps you can think of institutional relationships like that? (pictures at http://www.star.ac.za)


Thirteen other sophisticated telescopes owned by universities from around the world clutter the 6,000 high plateau. I was hoping Mindy Smith would help me ease into this, but there is simply no gentle way to say that Vanderbilt’s tool is called the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope.


The South Africans claim my Tennessee colleagues are aware this, but I am sure I am among the few others in the state to know that. It turns out the little sucker does work well at its very specific task of finding other planets. We may need that one day.

Jim, his son Tebo and I spent some astonished hours squinting through a mere 13 inch scope which was motorized to point at nearly anything you’d think to look at. (Imagine what Galileo could have figured out if he had this thing we can buy in a catalog instead of his crude Dutch optic). I saw a globular cluster, which looks to the eye as one fuzzy star, but is actually a cloud of them too dense to count. And the Small Magellan filled with bright young stars emerging in a cloud of galactic dust. My favorite is the “jewell box, a handful of differently colored gem-like suns just below the bottom of the Southern Cross. Oh, my.


SALT sees through an array of 91 mirrors that align to form a perfect 11 meter wide reflective disc. It can stare for hours at the same thing 13 billion light years out of our neighborhood and then an astronomer can peer into that data for months to figure out what it means. There are many arts and wonders to making that happen, but I noticed that they have to constantly fiddle, tweak and tinker with the alignment in order to see anything.

As the edges of the universe constantly expands, so does our ignorance, as new and impossible to imagine things keep happening. So we are constantly chasing after the universe with better tools. At the moment scientists are deciding to build a vast radio telescope array that would cover miles of either here in the Karoo or the Australian Outback. Who knows what we’ll realize we don’t know.


The Karoo raises people kind to their own kind, for nobody can live in this dry rocky terrain without generous friends. But the land tempts toward hardness on the others who may compete for the green and trickle of water. Surely, if we ever could get our eyes in alignment, we could see that our neighborhood is impossibly cold, that there is nobody on our tiny spot who is not us and that we must be kind or die.


I read Lauren’s newest play, “Silent Sky” in Sutherland. It is about Henrietta Leavitt, the woman who figured out how to figure out where we are in the universe partly by studying the pulsing Cepheids in my favorite Small Magellanic Cloud. It is all about connections and knowing of the kind that Sutherland is all about.

Henrietta closes the play looking up.

“Vast. Black. Lonely, except for billions upon billions of exceptions. And there is a reason we measure it in light.”

Silent Sky opens April 8th at South Coast Rep Theater in Orange County, California, hardly another 100th of a light second away from Memphis.

– Posted on the journey

About garygunderson

Vice President, Faith Health, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders and Religion and the Heath of the Public. Secretary, Stakeholder Health (Health Systems Learning Group).
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