Great Barrington — It looked like a small white cannon there in front of the Mason Library. I thought maybe our police department had finally gone a step too far.
But it was night when I drove by. Plus, the world is on fire and perhaps I’m a bit jumpy. I’ve been thinking about the latest tales of butchery: I’ve had ISIS on the brain. Ferguson’s been on my mind. And so was that day a few weeks ago when Great Barrington swarmed with cops and helicopters, all because of a ding-dong with a suspended license.
I remembered the flyer I had seen the day before. Oh, but of course. That cannon was really a big fat telescope. I checked for cops and made a U-turn back to the library. I’ll keep on trucking tonight. Might as well; I’ve just covered a soul-stripping board meeting. I’ll look into space to put local politics in perspective. Earth is so disheartening right now. I’ll look at another planet.
A handmade sign read: See Saturn and Luna. Just what I was looking for. There was a bucket for donations. People clustered around the telescope. “Do you want to see Saturn?” said a man to two ladies, passing by in the night.
“No,” said one of the women, who sounded like the late Joan Rivers. “I’ve seen enough. I’ve seen plenty.”
He watched them go. It took him a moment to recover. Seen enough…plenty? He clearly wasn’t used to astronomical rejection. He turned to me.
Do I want to see Saturn? Heck, yes. It was a tiny blurry thing, but I saw the rings, which are only about 40 feet thick, he said. Saturn is a “gas giant,” because it is composed mostly of…gas. I even saw an itty-bitty spot, the moon Titan, nearby. An article in Nature, “The Lakes of Titan,” said that Titan is “the only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found.” Not water for the backstroke, but hydrocarbons like methane.
I saw Saturn. Saw it from 883 million miles and 45 light minutes away. It’s like looking into the past, said telescope man, because it takes 45 minutes for the light to travel from Saturn back to us.
Hold it — who is this telescope man and how did he explain that so simply?
Meet Rick Costello of Great Barrington. He has studied the universe since he was 9. He learned astronomy on his own, which, he said, helped him find his own way to explain it. He gets emails, he says, from people all over the world, thanking him for the article on his website, “Time and The Speed of Light,” that helped them understand their interrelationship.
An astronomy lecturer, Costello is also an “astronomy artist” who specializes in space realism; he paints stars, planets and galaxies in their precise locations, “one star at a time.” He does it with acrylics, and uses a tiny brush to make it “astronomically correct.”
So correct, apparently, that one was commissioned by NASA. NASA’s curator told him it would live at Kennedy Space Center.
A canvas called “Telescopic View of the Earth,” took two and a half years to complete due to the number of stars in the painting: “I could never know the true amount of stars, but I would guess well over one half million if not many more,” his website says. Each star, dabbed on, one at a time.
“Star Man” as Costello is known, also runs Monument Mountain Regional High School’s Astronomy Club. People hire him for lectures and viewings; he makes astronomy house calls. He also does it for free. Judging from the scene last Thursday, people love it.
“But,” he said to me, referring to the earlier exchange, “some people don’t, which I don’t understand.”
Me either, I said, just as a strapping dude in a leather Mad Max number pulled his motorcycle over. Eyes wide as he swung his leg off his bike, he wanted to see Saturn, too. So did a few cute girls, who also wanted to see strapping bike dude between space views. All sorts of people came and went looking at each other like something good was finally happening in the world.
I guess things have gotten so bad here on Earth that we find comfort looking at inhospitable realms outside it: moons with lakes of methane, gas giants…
“Do you want to see the moon?” he asked me.
Yes, please. He turned the telescope. The moon was so comforting. It had childhood written all over it.
I was giddy. My soul had risen again after its death by committee meeting. My texting finger got wiggly. I wrote my family. “Do you wanna see Saturn, do you wanna see the moon?”
A man whom I had just talked to at some length suggested that texting interfered with regular old talking to each other on the street. I totally and absolutely, one hundred percent agree, I said, finishing my text.
“Only fifteen more minutes of Saturn,” said Star Man. I shot home, grabbed the first teenager I could find and threw her in the car. “OK, but not too late, mom, I have school in the –”
School? Please. You’re gonna see Saturn. You’re gonna see the moon.
She spoke to me as if through the window of my padded cell. Mom. I’ve seen Saturn. And the moon. Before. What do you mean you’ve seen them before? With Fred, remember?
Oh, right. Fred. OK, but still. It’s Saturn…and the moon. I’m not sure I could ever see enough.
Costello said he’d be outside the Mason Library on clear nights for roughly the next three weeks while Saturn is still visible. Up next: Jupiter in December.
Thank you, Star Man.
You can see Costello’s work at CostelloSpaceArt.com, and at Saint Francis Gallery in Lee, and The Emporium in Great Barrington.