Looking for Falling Stars

Last summer, we learned that there would be a great opportunity to see meteors in our area. That is if we would look at the right time and at the right direction. And provided that we would have a clear sky.

The event is the Perseid meteor shower, a stream of debris associated with the Swift-Tuttle comet. This is an annual event, and they said that in a clear night sky you can potentially see 100 falling stars in an hour. A hundred falling stars in an hour? That’s a proposition that was just too hard to resist.

Even though I spent half of my life in Manila (can’t see much stars in a big city), I have seen meteors several times in the past. The first time was when I was in grade school during our school’s camping in Batangas. The last time was not too long ago when I was driving home one night here in Iowa and it streaked down the sky. Perhaps I am lucky to see falling stars a few times, or perhaps I’m just looking at the night sky an awful lot of times.

My wife who have not seen a falling star ever, except maybe Kris Aquino falling off the stage on live TV some decades ago, so she was really determined to see this event.

So one night last August, we went outside to watch for falling stars.

We live in a country side, which was a decision we made years ago, where our dark night sky still shows the stars shining brightly and not blurred by the city lights. However in the past 13 years we have lived out here, the city has been creeping closer and closer to us. The cornfields and open prairies that we used to pass by is steadily being gobbled up by construction of housing developments and commercial establishments. I am not sure if I would like to call that “progress.”

It was close to 11 o’clock at night when we went out, a time that ordinarily I would already be snoring. We stood in our deck and looked out in our backyard sky towards northeast, the direction we read it would be. After close to half an hour outside, we still have not seen any falling stars. Not even a single one! And they promised 100 stars an hour?

We were also getting cold, for even though it was summer, it was seasonably cooler than usual that night. Our necks were getting strained as well from looking up. We should have placed a mat in our lawn and lay there under the stars with our blankets. At least we would be comfortable while we eagerly wait and while we listen to the ‘sweet nothing’ whispers in our ears. I’m referring to the pesky mosquitoes buzzing around our heads.

After a long while, as I was looking at the sky in the direction we thought the meteors would appear, I believed I saw a light streaked in my peripheral field of vision. So I told my wife that perhaps we were looking at the wrong direction. So we trained our gaze to a different direction in the sky.

Sure enough, in less than a minute, we saw a bright star flashed across the sky and disappeared in the dark. Not much later, another one did. And another one.

Isn’t it like many times in life, what we’re searching for has been there all along, we just have not realized it, or we just have not looked the right way. Like your lost keys. Or the love that you’re waiting for. Or the happiness that you’re chasing.

Satisfied, my wife suggested that we can go back inside the house, knowing also that the right direction where we can look was in the full view of our bedroom window. So we pulled out a sleeping mat and placed it near the window, and there we laid for the night instead of our bed, and watch for more shooting stars.

They said that you should make a wish when you see a shooting star. Of course I did. That wish was already been granted: lying down here beside me.

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Happy Anniversary my dear. It has been 23 years of happy moments and fulfilled wishes.

(*photo taken in Mohonk Mountain House, New York)

 

Tunnel Vision

I like gazing up at the starry night. However growing up in Manila, my view of the night sky is blocked by the smog, the overcrowded houses with their roofs cluttered with TV antennae, the clothes hanging in the clothesline (ours and the neighbors), and the bright lights of the bustling city.

Now, I have the privilege of living in a country setting here in Iowa. I even live in a housing community that deliberately planned on not putting street lamps to preserve the ‘country-feel’ environment. My view of the night sky is obviously very different from what I am used to see.

Last year I bought a Meade DS2000 telescope, so me and my kids can further study the starry sky. I was thrilled to see the craters of the moon very clearly. But when I aimed my telescope at a star, I believe it was Betelgeuse, the little speck of light turned into…… a slightly bigger speck of light. I was disappointed. I was expecting to see much better details. I guess, I was expecting too much from my telescope. After all, it’s not the Hubble telescope.

 

Star V838 Monocerotis (photo courtesy of hubblesite.org)

 

 

Few weeks ago, James Burr, a well known astronomer and a telescope designer for NASA, visited our church here in Des Moines. He gave us interesting lectures and showed beautiful images of the stars, galaxies and nebulas (most of the images are from the Hubble space telescope). My first reaction was, man, I have to get me a better telescope! But then I learned that it cost $1 Billion just for the mission to repair the Hubble telescope in 2009, and overall it already cost $10 Billion since Hubble was launched 20 years ago.

What really struck me was when Mr. Burr told us that after the repair of Hubble telescope last year, it was focused to survey a tiny spot of space. The area it was aimed to was so small, that the diameter is as if you are looking into the sky through a drinking straw. However the image it captured in this small area showed not just a hundred stars. Not just a thousand stars. Not even just a million stars! What it showed was about 10,000 galaxies! (Our galaxy, the Milky Way contain 200 billion stars.) 10,000 x 200 billion stars in such a narrow vision field of a straw??!! This gave me a new meaning to the term tunnel vision.

 

Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image (photo courtesy of hubblesite.org)

 

It is very easy to get hung up in our own little world and our own little problem. People often times have tunnel vision, that they don’t see the bigger scheme of things. But then again, how big is this universe that God aimed His vision in this tiny speck of a planet, in such a tiny speck of galaxy. I suppose, that is such a tunnel vision too, that He even cared for you and me.

Psalm 8:3-4: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?

I thought the bigger question, as my son just asked me recently, is “How big is God?” I will not even venture to answer that question.

As for my puny telescope? Well, I am still keeping it. It is still good for spying on the neighbors.

Once Upon a Starry Night

During my medical clerkship rotation in University of Sto. Tomas (UST), we had a patient in the Neurology ward, a girl named Melissa, who was about 7 years old. Her little body had been racked by illness, and every day she quietly cries in pain,  “Tatay, nanay, ang sakit sakit po ng ulo ko” (Dad, Mom, my head really hurts). But in spite of her suffering she remained courteous to the nurses and doctors, always answering with “po” and “opo”.

Melissa’s family is poor and they can hardly afford the medications let alone the ancillary tests needed for her work-up. Because a head CT scan cost a fortune during those days (and still is today), this imaging study was not immediately performed until the necessary paper works from the social services has been approved.

I was on-call that night when finally, Melissa was scheduled to have the head CT. It was around 10 at night when we accompanied her to the CT Radiology suite. Since she was in the Charity division of the UST hospital and the CT suite is located in the Pay or Main Hospital, we had to take her for a little trip across the campus.

It was a clear night and we took a shortcut across the parking lot instead of the covered hallways. While lying on the stretcher, Melissa saw the beautiful starry sky above us. She requested that we stop at the middle of the open lot, so she can gaze a little bit longer on the clear sky. And for a moment she forgot her pain while basking in the beauty of a starry night.

Upon entering the main hospital, the hallways were empty and dimly lit. As we turned a corner we passed a statue of Santo Nino, which was glowing with lights, shining like a beacon in the dark night.

Melissa requested to stop again in front of the statue, so she can linger a little longer as she gaze there in awe. “Ang ganda ganda po ng Sto. Nino” (the Sto. Nino looks so beautiful), she stated. It was a sight to see – a frail child tortured with disease, finds peace by looking at the face of the Blessed Child.

In the CT suite, our worst suspicion became a reality: Melissa’s head CT scan did not just show a brain tumor, but multiple tumors of varying sizes giving the appearance of a starry night. It was a death sentence for the little girl.

It was almost midnight when we headed back to the Charity ward. Melissa’s father, who was with us, was holding back tears, trying to hide his sorrow from his daughter. We were silent as we walked our way back, with our heads hung low, except for Melissa who was oblivious of the gravity of her prognosis, still reveling at the starry sky.

When we arrived at the Neurology  ward, Melissa asked her father to sit with her by the window so she can still look at the stars. They both sat there until her tired little body gave in to exhaustion and finally falling asleep.

Since then, for a couple of nights, you will find a feeble child in the Neurology ward, sitting by the window, suffering in pain, but finding comfort at the beauty of the stars.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

One morning, as I entered the Neurology ward, I glanced at Melissa’s bed. It was empty, with the mattress rolled up.

She peacefully passed away into the night.

Looking back after many years, in my dizzying and hurried schedule, I feel that sometimes, I need to stop for a while. Perhaps gaze up into the sky. Appreciate the small things that I have been taking for granted. A beautiful sunrise, a warm sunny day, a sincere smile, or a simple “thank you” from one of my patients. Perhaps I should see the world through the eyes of a child like Melissa – to see the beauty of this world instead of its difficulties, to see the faint light of the stars instead of cursing the dark night.

I was in deep thought when I was interrupted by my son, “Daddy, come outside, look at the full moon”. I cannot miss this. I have to go.