|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXIV NUMBER 2 WINTER 2008|
Life On and Off the Main Sequence
Dr. Russell, a professional art historian who researches 14th-century B.C.E. Bronze-Age pottery, recently took Professor Russell Harkay's Introduction to Astronomy through KSC Continuing Education. The essay she wrote about her experience in the class, first published in Sky & Telescope Magazine, is presented here.
The author, with the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram on the screen behind her.
On the first day of the astronomy course, I looked around nervously at my fellow classmates, who were all about the age of my teenage son. I felt a bit awkward as a 50-year-old woman returning to the classroom after more than 25 years. On a whim I had enrolled in Astronomy 101 at a local college, mostly because of my lifelong fascination with astronomy, but also because I thought it might be therapeutic. I had recently resigned from my job as a museum curator to care for my ailing mother. After several stressful months she was improving in an assisted-living home near us, and I had some time for myself. I thought the course might also help cure a severe case of "empty nest" syndrome. Our only child was beginning his freshman year far away at the California Institute of Technology. My husband and I, both with graduate degrees in classical archaeology, were mystified as to how we produced a whiz in math and science. By signing up for an astronomy course (albeit one that did not require calculus or any background in physics), I might get a taste, however diluted, of my son's new life at college.
Whatever motivated me to enroll faded from memory as I became immersed in the subject matter. I absorbed the lectures and reading material like a sponge. As weeks went by, I built a framework where I could hang all the bits of astronomical knowledge I had acquired piecemeal over the years from magazines and TV shows. Now I could confidently outline the whole life cycle of a star, from active newborn to aging giant.
My favorite part of the course was our study of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stellar types and developmental stages. I was fascinated by the gently curving ribbon of the main sequence and the intriguing areas that lay to either side of it – the hot, bright, unpredictable realm of the swollen giants to the upper right, and the dim, cool region of depleted stars to the lower left. As a humanist, I was fascinated that the H-R diagram could serve as a valuable model for human lives as well. The charted array of stars corresponds closely to the range of human personalities. Most of us are like the vast number of low-luminosity stars that plod along reliably, efficiently using their fuel. There are far fewer flashy, massive stars, but, like our popular celebrities, they are much easier to spot and demand our attention.
Like stars, we spend most of our lives on the "main sequence" – earning a living, rearing children, maintaining a home. Eventually and inevitably, we veer off this path into a region resembling that of the struggling, overblown stars, those heading to the end of their lives, where changes occur more rapidly – and more violently. Some of us, like my mother, end up for a while in a zone resembling the volatile "instability strip,"the home of variable stars. At 85, mom has good days, but also phases when she seems like a shell of her former self. The doctors adjust her medications after each crisis, changing the "fuel" she burns. As the H-R diagram predicts, her next stage will be that of a faded white dwarf, joining the diminished, white-haired folks at her home, who, having spent all their fuel, barely talk or move.
Our son, the protostar, has yet to join the main sequence. He is very energetic, but cannot quite fuse his own fuel. His full potential is still shrouded in a dust cloud, which I sometimes think is an apt description of his bedroom. I am convinced the only way to spot him among his scattered possessions is through his infrared radiation. Soon he will shed this nurturing cocoon and make his own bright mark in the universe.
As for me, I am still on the main sequence, although as time passes, I sense my gravity-pressure balance changing subtly. Like many others, I suppose, I consider myself a normal person with not uncommon goals and aspirations. It is somehow reassuring that I would place myself on the H-R diagram close to our own, quite average, Sun. I expected my astronomy course to provide me with a better understanding of the marvels of the universe. I did not expect, however, that it would also give me a new way to view the complexities of the human condition.