Small nothings passing through vast nothings

In an alternate timeline, I decided to stay in the astronomy department in college and not switch to engineering.

"Astronomers Confirm Solar System’s Most Distant Known Object Is Indeed Farfarout". NOIRLab press release (2021-02-10).

This is more like what I imagined when I was thinking about studying astronomy: staring into a telescope for a very long time, staring into the abyss, trying to make incremental sense of an incredibly large, dark nothing.

It's easier to imagine an alternate me doing that than a real me. There's something romantic about the idea of sifting through data, day after day, year after year, searching for answers to abstract questions of the universe. Romantic about the idea. The idea is a movie montage—a telescope, a man at a computer, a man point at the stars, a press conference with shutter clicks and pointing to the reporters for the next question. Years of waiting and popularly uninteresting results not thrown out so much as never considered for inclusion. A long arc reduced to its key points. A reality, a fiction.

I doubt that professional astronomers really sit there and look into telescopes night after night after night. Anything that needs the kind of resolution that can be handled by the human eye is surely a nineteenth century problem. There are things we would recognize as images, but much of it is raw, raw data. Looking for the light wiggles of a star eclipsed by a planet that can't be directly seen. Impossibly scarce but very hot gases like wreathes around star systems. Ever-so-slightly unexplained perturbations in the orbits of our neighbor planets, indicating that something somewhere is lending its gravity to the party.

Long, slow problems. Small nothings passing through vast nothings. Ambiguous traces of interstellar importance. How many of these small wanderers exist out there? It's not even a real number. Swivel back around to the eyepiece, and keep looking.

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