Il Penseroso, I suppose…

In the summer, when the sky permits, I have some favourite stars -two actually, although if I pretend to look away and concentrate on my peripheral vision, three, I guess. They are the ones that I can see from my bed through the skylight in the late evening. I track them as they slowly drift across the pane, flattering myself that I’m doing what Milton did so many years ago in his 17th century poem Il Penseroso when he describes outwatching the Bear (the Ursa Major constellation visible over his head if he stared at the night sky). His poem was a study in melancholy, I think; my reflections are more a recognition of insomnial thoughts though: something to do until, like the stars, I drift away and forget why I went to bed so early again.

I admit that this is a renegade way of considering the night skies: neither seeking firmamental patterns, nor feeling much in the way of personal insignificance – I mean there are only two stars, eh? Okay, maybe three up there as far as my skylight is concerned; I’m sorry, but their drift is hardly humbling. Still, the two of them are like adult bedtime stories and their passage is comforting. I think their lack of pattern is sometimes a welcome relief for a pareidoliac like myself.[i] But on those occasions where I look away and see the third star (sort of), I have to admit that I try to fit them all into a coherent whole -a shape– although as soon as I stare at them in the attempt, there are only two again… That, in and of itself, is tiring because they become a reiterative reminder of life as depicted in Cixin Liu’s novel, The Three Body Problem -and of course I didn’t really understand much of that story either…

So, every night as I stared upwards at the two widely separated twinkles, I struggled to fit the two of them into some sort of a pattern -a simple constellation perhaps, or maybe two points on the outer circumference of a circle or something. But after a few attempts, I began to realize I was probably out of my depth and sought help in the usual quarters by kicking around in my phone apps to see what surfaced. Eventually I got an idea from one of them.

It would seem that visual processing is fairly complicated: there are several stages before arriving at an acceptable result. First you merely look at the edges of something, and from there build it up into a more comprehensible shape.[ii] It didn’t mention how many points constituted a shape however, but I gather constellations still require more than two… Each culture interprets the points differently of course -and especially cultures that have never met each other. But anyway, I live (and sleep) alone so I can’t canvass multiple opinions as to what only two dots would suggest to somebody who normally uses multiple stars. And, of course, most don’t confine their stargazing to a single skylight either, so my problem is likely a unique impediment to any kind of reasonable consensus, even forgetting about the sad number of stars involved.

I realized I could do with some more input, so I decided to frame it as ‘the two body problem’ and take it to the retired guys I meet for coffee on Wednesday mornings at the Food Court.

I brought extra napkins and a pen with me so I could illustrate the issue for them, but only Les, the ex-security guard, and Harry, a retired accountant showed up that day. I was hoping for a larger turnout so there would be some parry and thrust to the suggestions. In a way, though, I realized it was a fortuitous number to illustrate the problem: they would constitute my two stars -my unsolved two-body problem.

“Why’dya bring all the napkins, G?” was the first thing Les said to me as I approached the table trying to balance bagel, napkins and coffee. “You have another bad night?” he added with a knowing smirk on his face.

I’d told them about my skylight adventures last week.

I shook my head as I arranged a few napkins on the table in front of me. “Not bad, exactly,” I explained. “Just puzzling…”

Harry shook his head slowly, as if he understood what I must be going through. “The skylight again…? Why don’t you just move your bed, G?” he added as soon as I nodded my head and shrugged.

“Because what I see through it each night has raised an interesting question…” They both looked up from their coffees; there was finally something to talk about, I suppose.

“How many stars do you need to make a constellation?” They both glanced at each other about the word. “A recognizable pattern,” I clarified.

Les just rolled his eyes, but judging by the puzzled look on his face, Harry seemed interested. “You mean how many things do you have to group together to form a pattern…?”

I nodded. “You need more than one, obviously… but is two enough? Three…? More than three…?”

They both thought about it for a minute or so. Finally, Les pointed out that you’d have to have at least three: “To give it some shape if you connected them with lines,” he explained. “Two would just be a straight line, eh? No pattern there…”

But Harry, now fascinated, continued to stare at his coffee. “Makes sense, I guess…” he said, directing his words at Les. “But…”

“But what,” Les replied, shaking his head. There’s only one way to join two points -only one line.”

“But what else connects to them, Les? What other lines can we draw?”

Les shrugged. “There are only two stars, Harry… One line.”

A big smile spread across Harry’s face. “If G is looking at them, there are three lines, Les: one to him from each star. So voila, a pattern.” He was positively beaming as he looked at each of us. “Now we have a triangle,” he explained. “A constellation: the Triangle Constellation…”

Les shook his head. “I don’t think that counts, Har. G isn’t a star, eh? He doesn’t count…”

Harry’s smile spread even further over his face. “If G doesn’t even look, there is no constellation for him, no matter how many stars are out there. Somebody has to recognize there is a pattern and name it, right? The observer is an important part of the pattern. A sine qua non,” he added with a wink.

“So what does that mean,” Les asked, his eyes now staring suspiciously at Harry.

“It means I think we have solved G’s problem,” Harry answered as he risked a glance at me.

You know, I suppose he had. And I like the idea of being part of a constellation…




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