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(Jens Bonnke for The Globe and Mail)
(Jens Bonnke for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments

I have no one to talk to about my love of astronomy Add to ...

Imagine a sports fan without anyone to talk to about sports. Or a music lover without anyone to talk to about music. How about a book-club member who shows up at the monthly meeting - all prepared - only to find no one else there?

I seem to be suffering the same fate in my retirement years. After recently pursuing a previously undeveloped interest of mine, I find I have no wife, friend or colleague to talk to about it. No one with whom to share the magic.

Don't get me wrong - I have a loving wife, two great adult offspring, lots of good friends, some tennis partners and a couple of Cavalier King Charles spaniels. It's just that none of these gentle breathing souls has the foggiest interest in my new-found adventure.

For example, over a quiet breakfast one day, I mentioned to my wife that despite the incredible speed of light (can you imagine anything moving 300,000 kilometres every second?), it still takes several billion years for that light to travel from the most remote galaxies in the universe to Earth.

After an inordinately long silence, I added, "Sure gives you an idea of the vast distances across the cosmos, eh?"

At this point in the "discussion," my wife looked up from her hot cup of cocoa (we'd run out of coffee) and nonchalantly suggested that she could use some help with the grocery shopping that morning.

Just as I was about to crack open a book on radio astronomy and its use by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, I found myself suddenly recruited to the role of assistant dog bather.

The whole problem started when I retired in 2001 from a career in systems engineering, teaching and technical writing. I settled on an academic project that would help keep my brain from turning to mush in my declining years - taking a master's degree in astronomy online through a university in Australia. The science of making astronomical discoveries has long fascinated me. At a more philosophical level, we are such a tiny part of the universe, it seems only natural to think about how we fit into it all.

So I plowed through this intellectually stimulating program over the next six years, but the only folks to share it with were the globally dispersed students in the online newsgroup discussions. There was no one to chat with face to face over chicken wings and beer. I suppose I could have joined an amateur astronomy club, but those characters are obsessed with transporting heavy equipment hundreds of miles, just to freeze to death in the dark while waiting for the clouds to pass so they can squint at things better viewed in a glossy book indoors beside a warm fireplace.

People used to ask me, "How's the course going?" But I soon learned this was just a replacement for that other rhetorical question, "How are you?"

At first I actually responded with some information. Not a good move. One neighbour popped the question while I was walking the dogs. Since he was an engineer, I replied that my current course was on relativity and launched into an explanation of time dilation at relativistic speeds - the fact that if you move fast enough your wristwatch (not to mention your aging process) slows down.

At this point the neighbour quietly asserted, "I don't believe it."

Catching on quickly, I responded, "So how's the family?"

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I'm thinking of erecting a large sign on the front lawn: Wanted - somebody to chat with about the Big Bang, black holes and supernovae. About neutron stars so dense that a thimbleful of the stuff would weigh 100 million tons on Earth. About the incredible emptiness of the cosmos - less than six atoms on average per cubic meter. About the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that make up most of the universe.

Then there's everyday life. Just as I was about to crack open a book on radio astronomy and its use by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, I found myself suddenly recruited to the role of assistant dog bather.

More recently, I was quietly explaining to our older dog (I figured the other one was too young) about the hydrogen-to-helium nuclear reaction in the sun's core, how it has kept the sun shining for five billion years and will continue to do so for another five billion, and how it is consuming hydrogen at the colossal rate of 600 million tons every second, when the phone rang.

It was a dear friend of ours from whom we hadn't heard in some time. When she found out my wife was not at home, she asked me if I had finished my astrology course yet.

"Ah, you mean my astronomy course," I replied, putting only the slightest emphasis on the "astronomy" part. I then casually mentioned that astrology is simply a misguided, ancient, religious quirk, a pseudo science if you will, that has nothing to do with … There was a hasty interjection at the other end. "Pardon?" I said. "You have to run? Oh well, that's okay. Good to hear from you. Bye now."

Just imagine if there were extraterrestrials and they decided to pay us a visit. I'd have someone to talk to. Maybe swap a few ideas.

Ken Dixon lives in Toronto.

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