Stellar Heart

I am five years old. I am walking hand-in-hand with my grandmother in the country outside of Milan. Our bare feet pad across the soft, damp grass. Along side us, my little dog, Birba, scampers excitedly. Suddenly, my grandmother halts and points above us to the heavens.

"Guarda! Look!" she says. "That star! The brightest one -- she is looking at us!" I laugh, but she goes on seriously. "Yes, piccola, all the stars have eyes to watch us. Look carefully!"

I do look carefully. And in that instant I feel the star gaze back at me. I feel as if it is a stellar heart that beats with mine. For a moment, all the loneliness of my childhood evaporates. I feel a peacefulness, a oneness with all of the universe that I have never felt before.

I often think about that first extraterrestrial gaze. How it made me quiver with awe. How it made me feel both like the center of the universe and like an invisible micro-dot lost in incomprehensible space. I felt both magnificently empowered by this magical array of stellar jewelry and terribly humbled by the infinite vastness of it all. At that moment, I knew not a thing about quasars and black holes and brown dwarves; I did not even know that radio telescopes existed, let along that at one point of my life I would spend years "peering" through one. All I knew was that the sky had suddenly opened up to me and I would never be the same again.

The first human must have felt something akin to this when she stepped out of her cave and turned her eyes skyward: shaken, empowered, humbled, mystified. What is this glorious display, this radiant cave ceiling that arches over the entire landscape? What is this firey ball that cruises across the sky by day? This pale crescent that rises from behind the mountains and follows me through the night? And that sudden streak of light that leaves its ephemeral mark in the sky like a piece of chalk scratched against the cave wall -- what is that?

Am I a part of all of this?
Can I ever know it? Does it know me?
What does it tell me about my life?
Can it show me how to construct my own internal universe?

For me, with astounding new cosmic discoveries occurring at observatories almost daily, these first questions remain the most profound questions astrophysics can ask. And yet somehow the sense of how I felt on that night with my grandmother easily fades from the professional astronomer's mind and heart, just as the sky fades from view when the lights of the cities emit an impenetrable pale curtain between earth and sky.

We become blinded by a technological curtain of abstract mathematical theorems and complex astronomical machinery, and we forget to feel the wonder of infinite space. We fail to communicate with loquacious celestial objects. We have fallen into the 21th Century trap of believing that the only knowledge we can gain from the universe is objective facts and not poetic truths about our lives. We become deaf to the music of the spheres. And worst of all, we are afraid to look into the stars' eyes.

I enthusiastically embrace the fabulous new discoveries of astrophysics, but I do not want to stop there. I want these discoveries to swim in our imaginations, to open our hearts to new ways of thinking and feeling about life, about men and women, about catastrophes and rituals. I want us all to hear how the music of the spheres resonates with the music of our hearts.

Strapped to my telescope atop Mt. Palomar, I hit a switch and the roof of the observatory grinds open, slowly revealing the Cosmos. I type my password into the computer and suddenly I feel myself -- synchronized swimmers in the heavens. I zero in on Stella Polaris, that fabulous luminous circle, and once again I find myself in the thrall of her exquisite beauty. Perfectly round, elegant, so absolutely sure of her place in the heavenly order. What a sexy enchantress! O Yes, the Universe is a beautiful woman.

Whether we want to admit to it or not, modern science has fostered a materialistic world view of the Universe. If there are only objects out there, and not subjects with which we can commune, we find ourselves isolated in a world of Things. It is just Us (the observers) and Them (the things we observe), and our relationship to these Things out there is reduced to possession, even if possessing celestial objects only means of possessing knowledge about them.

It was long time ago, when science separated off from philosophy to become a purely empirical enterprise that examined objects, measured them, charted their movements, and predicted their future behavior. From that point on, studying the stars had to be done dispassionately, without allowing our feelings and yearnings and personal quandaries to become entangled in examining celestial phenomena. "We must be objective", our science command "our job is to master the universe, not to commune with it".

Even Plato, who was more inclined to stay indoors at night than go out stargazing, wrote, "Had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever been uttered. But now the sight of day and nights, and the months and revolutions per year, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of enquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, of which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man."

I believe it is high time we start some serious (and joyful) communing with the universe. Perhaps it will take a new scientist, maybe a woman, to show us how to combine these opposite approaches of gazing at the stars.

Of course, some of my colleagues think I am a little a bit soft in the head, that I have forsaken scientific objectivity in order to feel closer to our subject matter. But these Martians (as I like to call them) do not realize what I am up to.

What I aim for is a dynamic relationship with data, a dance between the knower and the known.

And if I indulge in metaphors for my life, drawn from what I observe, if I find lessons and poetry and music in what I see in the lenses of my telescopes, I am not the less devoted to scientific truth. On the contrary, I am quite sure that I am more passionately in love with the truth than the "objective" observer who records his data without a flicker of emotion or even a momentary flight of imagination.

I am a scientist who is moved by an artistic sensibility and an artist who relies upon science and technology in order to express myself. All my work is based on a unique blend of science and art, of knowledge and emotion - a concept I call "Emotional Learning" since it is based on the 4 Es - Entertain, Educate, Enlighten and Enthrall. When leaning find an emotional home it is remembered forever.

Yes, I dream a new science in which reason and imagination are not enemies, but rather partners in appreciation of the wonders of the Universe.

Dear Students,

I am so pleased to be able to teach Astronomy, General Physics with calculus, College Physics with trigonometry and general physics lab.

I am a scientist, an astrophysicist who believes in the power and importance of a broad education that involves looking at the world from a variety of angles. In my class, you will acquire scientific knowledge, but we will also explore the creative side of science. My lessons are, in fact, based on a unique blend of science and art, knowledge and emotion--a concept I call "Emotional Learning," since it is based on the 4 "E"s: Entertain, Educate, Enlighten, and Enthrall. When you are engaged on these multiple levels, learning finds an emotional home, and it is remembered forever.

This approach has grown out of my own experiences with science and astronomy and the joy that has come from pursuing it. As a young child, I spent the summers in the countryside outside Milan with my grandmother. It was she who first introduced me to the wonders of the night sky and showed me how many things become possible when we allow our imaginations to fuel exploration. She encouraged me to observe carefully, but always with a sense of wonder and appreciation.

Ever since then, I have considered learning exciting and as necessary as air. To learn is to grow, and the result is not only personal fulfillment, success in life but also the enrichment and elevation of humankind. I carried these ideas with me while studying physics at the University of Milan and while conducting my doctoral research at the University of California at San Diego; they helped make learning a fun and active experience for me.

Perhaps, there is another "E" which belongs among the four "E's:" EMPOWER. Education empowers us. It is the most powerful springboard for opening our minds and our hearts and guiding us to a greater understanding and appreciation of the universe and our place in it. It is when we understand that we possess the power to act.

As I have written in several articles, "I enthusiastically embrace the fabulous new discoveries of astrophysics, but I do not want to stop there. I want these discoveries to swim in our imaginations, and to open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking and feeling about life."

The biggest challenge todays for an educator is to engage the students, to capture their attention by customizing the learning process. I have observed that when students personally identify with the subject matter, they learn better. This is why I like to expose students to new tools for learning like, when possible, the use of multimedia tools, interactive CDs, DVD and the Internet.

As your Professor of Astronomy, I will bring all of my knowledge, enthusiasm, and dedication to the task of insuring your understanding and basic skills, fostering enthusiasm and love for astronomy, and encouraging a desire to pursue and use it to achieve your own personal goals. I want to make your learning as exciting and significant as the Universe itself.

Prof. Fiorella Terenzi