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Oh, be amazed…

By Michael Sitzman

Section: Arts

September 15, 2006

These are the days of miracle and wonder, according to Paul Simons lyrics. And so it was, with those words ringing in my head, that a random January day last year found me completely mute. Except for that predictable Oh my God, I could speak no words at all. I was staring at the first photograph taken by the Cassini-Huygens space-probe lander from the surface of Saturns largest moon, Titan. As the poet sang in my head, I sat there, dumbstruck.

Friends, this week let me tell you a bit about a subject dear to my heart. I think were all fascinated by astronomy now and then (who wouldnt be), but I was the kind of kid who doodled pictures of Saturn all over his homework from the second grade on up. At recess periods after lunch youd see me there in the schoolyard, talking to the Queen of Saturn through a banana. Such quirky fanaticism didnt win me too many friends. Alright, I promise I wont do that in Sherman anymore! But can I share some of the magic with you?

In recent years, Ive lamented the loss of vision and ambition that America once had. Imagine: Way back in the sixties, we actually sent people to the moon! The year 2000 once represented the future, and a good one. If the 20th Century was any indicator, what a joyride the 21st was to be: Cars would fly;

airplanes would be hypersonic;

wed live on the moon;

and astronauts would visit Mars and beyond.

So this is 2006. (I like to say twenty-o-six;

sounds more futuristic.) And how are things? Well, I guess the space shuttles alright, and I hear theres a space station up there too somewhere. So heres how we talk in the future:

Like, whatever

Like, what ever happened to the future we were supposed to have? I dont know, and I hate it. Yet thankfully, every once in awhile, we just somehow get it right, and the wonder briefly returns. So have a look at these pictures from a planet thats ten times as wide across as our world: Saturn!

The Titan surface shot (my favorite, of course) is the first such picture from the outer solar system, the realm beyond the asteroid belt. Its the fourth extraterrestrial body from which weve seen a surface view (after our own moon, and then Venus and Mars). Its also the first from a satellite of another planet.

The Saturn system is a billion miles distant. How far is that? Well, light could circle our world seven times in a second, or get to the moon in under two seconds, or reach Mars or Venus in a few minutes. Yet it would need ninety minutes to reach Saturn. By my reckoning, if we took the distance to those other three worlds and stacked them all end-to-end, wed need to travel fifteen times further still! More simply, we went to the moon four-thousand times over. Talk about a joyride. Looks like we rode the express train way, way uptown this time.

I dont know what the ever-receding future will bring, but Im sure Ill never get to fly faster than sound, let alone visit the moon. I can only say its nice to know that, from time to time, vision prevails. Budgets arent cut. Human genius shines. Somehow, we just manage to get it right, and the proof is in the pictures.

Say, in case you think theyre expensive pictures, consider all the scientific benefits of this project. Yes, this is one of the most costly missions ever, but it equals only two weeks expenditures on the current war effort. No politics here, my friends;

I only mean that all things are relative.

Now treat yourselves to a precious moment. Set aside thoughts of war and budgets. Gaze at these postcards that traveled a billion miles, from the frontier of imagination itself, to reach out to yours. If you let them, they will speak to you. Their message:

Oh, be amazed! Lucky, young citizens of a new century: Stand astonished and dumbstruck at all that you will witness. For indeed these are still the days of genius, of miracle and wonder;

a fearful and marvelous time to be alive.

From Horseradish with love: Gut Shabbes, Brandeis.

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