Observational Techniques of Optical Astronomy
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is Observational Techniques of Optical Astronomy by Tanya Llanas. Tanya is a writer and software engineer living in Boston, MA. She enjoys writing autobiography, memoir, and personal essays – where she explores her upbringing along the Texas-Mexico border, as well as topics like (her own) queerness, socioeconomic class, mental health, immigration and religion. She graduated from MIT in May of 2022 with a joint degree in Physics and Creative Writing, where her senior thesis explored what it was like to be depressed at the Institute. Tanya hopes to continue sharing stories about the universe, borders, and all the things in between. This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
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In the Fall of 2021, exhausted by the emotional and academic battering I’ve received from MIT, and – more specifically – the Physics department, I officially change my major to a joint degree in Physics and Creative Writing.
And as a self-proclaimed lover of physics—as a girl who writes about life through the lens of metaphors like springs and moon landings—I am, in retrospect, more surprised at how long it took me to come to terms with this decision than I am about having made the decision itself.
But when the Fall of 2021 comes around, something in me does the opposite of snapping. Snapping implies a loss of control, a lack of reasoning, a breaking point. This is different. Calculated, with peer-reviewed evidence supporting my claim that being just a physics student has sucked ass (see: my therapist’s notes, the Zoom calls with my dean at Student Support Services, my Twitter feed, and my thesis advisor’s feedback). What I would use instead is the word deflate. This is different from the way I’d say a guy’s ego deflates when he realizes that, despite being a woman, I am both gay and better at physics than he is. I decide my ego can handle giving up the prestige of “I graduated from MIT with a Physics degree,” and swap it for "I graduated from MIT with a joint degree in Physics and Creative Writing.” Which is to say: I give myself permission to document the horror of being a physics student at MIT.
What the change of major does is allow time in my schedule to write. At least, that’s what I tell people when they ask.
What the change of major really does is reduce the number of physics classes I have left to take from three to one. I think I can manage one. The remaining class is a lab class, similar to 8.13, but in the wake of the difficulties of the semester prior, I look for any and all ways to avoid retaking Junior Lab. There is exactly one.
The class is called Observational Techniques of Optical Astronomy, and it sounds fun when I read the course listing, but I think that’s because I’m being optimistic. This is the last difficult class standing between me and graduation, so I let myself hope. And what could be worse than Junior Lab? I nearly kill myself in Junior Lab. This will be different, I tell myself.
Star stuff, in theory, should come easy. I’ve been studying the sky for a long time.
We sort stars into categories depending on how bright they look from Earth, and the system—like absolutely everything else I’ve learned about physics and astronomy—makes absolutely zero sense, except this time it’s not my fault for not studying enough or not paying enough attention. For example, the sun is a star of magnitude -26.74 and Polaris, the North Star, is of magnitude 1.98. But you and I both know that the sun is the brightest star in our sky, much brighter from Earth than the North Star, and all I can really tell you to explain it is that a long time ago some astronomer decided a) the lower the magnitude, the brighter the star and b) some things don’t need to make sense anyway.
Everything about the sky is so large that we measure most of it in units almost incomprehensible to the human mind. Distance is measured in astronomical units, or the average distance between Earth and the Sun: ninety-three million miles. Or in units of light years, which is the distance light travels in a year: sixty-three thousand astronomical units. Or in units of parsecs, which is a little over three light years. Mass is measured in solar units, or in multiples of the mass of the sun: approximately one thousand times the mass of Jupiter and three hundred thirty-three thousand times the mass of the little blue and green planet we live on.
If you skipped that paragraph because of all the numbers, I get it. I'm with you. If I could have gotten through this degree without scrounging the internet for conversion factors, I would have. Instead, I'm only slightly qualified as a graduating senior of the physics (and yes, Creative Writing) department to tell you that even astronomers measure time in seconds, minutes, hours – years. Just like you and me.
My grandfather died on Thursday, August 9th, 2021. He was eighty-something years old. In magnitudes of age that’s about as accurately as I can recall, anyway—the number of decades, but not the number of years since eighty. I could’ve easily messaged one of my sisters and asked if they knew, if our mother might have shared his exact age as they watched over her mourning. My sister tells me she’s never seen Mom quite like that—wailing—completely inconsolable.
There’s a Latin American folktale used to scare children into behaving that speaks of the ghost of a woman who wanders by waterfronts at night, mourning the loss of the children she drowned. La Llorona. The Weeping Woman. The Wailer. I wonder what it is about Latin American women mourning and people describing the act of sobbing a heart out like that. Wailing. I think about going back to change the word. But just like with my grandfather’s age, that’s a narrative detail I want to preserve—no, I have to preserve.
It’s important to relay as accurately as possible what I knew about my grandfather and what I didn’t. I knew he was at least eighty, but have no idea how many seconds, minutes, hours he breathed since then, how many years since eighty he was part of the dance of the nearly eight million people alive on our hunk of dirt, hurtling through the universe.
I was not particularly close to my grandfather, but I still grieve—I still mourn him. As a patriarch, as my mother’s father, as a man who survived his own struggles and figured out his own way. In my high school years, he would walk on knobby knees across the bridge and over the river to the dollar store just on the outside of Brownsville and carry back home to Matamoros a week’s worth of groceries. By then, my grandmother struggled to walk. Hell, he must have struggled to walk. And while it was likely a bit of that infamous Mexican machismo that kept him from fessing up to his pain, I like to imagine it was his love of her, too, the traces of which are irrefutable in this one small detail: for the time being, he was less in pain, and thus it was he who made the journey.
I mourn my grandfather formally, the only way I know how, governed like everything else was by the many Yes Sirs and No Sirs I must have said to him, in Spanish of course, conjugating in the usted form always—distant, respectful, a nod to his age, to his wisdom, to the many years he must have witnessed with his own eyes, the many hands he shook besides mine, the many times the sun tracked across the sky in his lifetime. I knew that he was my mother’s father and my grandmother’s partner and that they loved him and that meant I loved him, and that sufficed.
It was cancer that took him. It progressed quickly after diagnosis, afraid perhaps that once its cover was blown we’d do something to stop it. But there was nothing that could be done about the havoc it wreaked on my grandfather’s body, unnoticed by all but him and he unwilling or unable to confess it while he trekked across the port of entry with his grocery haul, week after week and month after month and year after year.
You have to understand, my family grew up in poverty. I’m the first of my sisters with medical, dental, and vision insurance. I didn’t try contacts on until I was twenty and in college. We went to the same doctor, at the same children’s clinic, for emergencies only, until we were eighteen—and then we aged out of Medicaid so we were on our own. My grandfather—he didn’t have insurance. He was a used car salesman; there was no 401k, no pretax contribution to a health spending account, no biweekly payday, in fact no bank account he could set up direct deposit for. By the time my mother’s siblings in Mexico realized this was the kind of thing you asked the community to pitch in for, the kind of thing you made an updates Facebook page for, the kind of thing they didn’t know to look for, and the kind of thing they couldn’t have afforded had they caught it early anyway, the cancer diagnosis came far too late.
At MIT, we test for COVID-19 twice a week. They have take-home tests I can drop off at one of five locations on campus. I can get my anxiety and depression medications for a small copay at the MIT pharmacy. I can switch medication if I want, try it on to see how it feels. We get the flu shot for free during an annual flu drive in Walker Memorial, standing in long but quickly-moving lines.
It’s supposed to be a marvel to behold, a bastion of community health, a ten-minute pit stop between my writing class and an optical astronomy lecture.
When they email out about the Fall 2021 flu drive, I think about my cousin Meli, who helped our grandmother take care of our grandfather in the house they’d shared from the day she was born. I think about my aunt Angie, who in those last few weeks went by every day with food. I think about my sister Karen, sitting in the room where my grandfather spent his last days, FaceTiming our mother so she could say goodbye. I think about holding my grandmother’s hand as my sister Anna opens up a letter our Mom wrote to her dying father, tasking Anna with reading it aloud. I think about how we gathered in a small room in Matamoros, my aunt Angie and Meli and my grandmother and my sisters and I, proxies for our mother—our already grieving mother, our absent mother, our wailing mother—and listened to words written for my grandfather but intended for the ears of whoever was in the room that day. I think about my mother, a daughter in the kind of pain that makes it hard to breathe, scrawling out that letter through tears and wishing with everything in her being that she could see her father one last time. I think about how we share the burden of bearing witness to this violence, not just on the day of my grandfather’s death, but every day prior and every day since.
I think about stars, and I think about borders. I think about how cruel it is to reduce us all to this:
A video call. A letter. A heartbreak.
When my grandfather dies on the second day of my last year at MIT, I wonder who else there is to shout at about the unfairness of all of this, who else I can sit down and explain it to.
I wonder how to put into words that the greatest hurt of my senior year isn’t that my parents can’t come see me at graduation come spring, but rather that, because she was born south of a river and south of a made-up border, my mother couldn’t comfort her father as he died.
Stars and borders seem at odds with each other, I know. You will hear, in every way you could possibly imagine, that the human quest to understand the universe is a noble one. But borders — all they really do is cause pain.
Let me tell you, there are some lines humans draw that are illegal to cross and others that are meant to be.
The first night we head out to Wallace Observatory for my astronomy class, something returns to me. A memory of having liked physics, once upon a time. A fleeting feeling of awe. I drive myself out instead of riding with the class because this way, I can play my own music, scream lyrics at the top of my lungs, speed 80 mph like I’m on a Texas freeway to nowhere and the closest city is two hours away—one and a half, if I go 90. I can play a Vicente Fernandez song and think about how my grandfather used to make fun of me for being obsessed with Mexican queso fresco. Or I can ride in silence. I can skip out on the social pleasantries. I can let my anger fester.
If you ever drive out to an observatory where they do optical astronomy, you should know that the place will be lit by red light. Computers will have a red film of plastic taped over their screen. Lamps will have red plastic covers over bulbs. Light switches will be dimmable. Red light preserves your hard-earned night vision—makes it easier to look up at the night sky and detect stars with the naked eye.
What I’m telling you is that Wallace Observatory at night looks like a scene directly out of a horror movie. There is something obscene about the red darkness. My TA asks me if I saw the deer on my drive in. I tell her no. I tell her if I had seen eyes staring back at me from between the trees, I would have been scared shitless because it looks like a horror movie out here. She laughs a little, and I chuckle with her, but I was not making a joke. I do not tell her there is something else out in those trees, staring back at me. A specter of my mother.
She is alive and well, but she shows up in the corner of my eye that night anyway. She is upset, I think, rightfully so—I carry around one last memory of a dying grandfather, and all she got was a video call. She should have been there, in the room as her father died, but instead her children made their way across downtown Brownsville and walked into Matamoros on foot to say goodbye on her behalf.
It is a four-minute walk into Matamoros if you park close enough to the U.S. side of the port of entry. At the halfway point, a plaque reads “Límite de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos” on one side and “Boundary of the United States of America” on the other. The river underneath is barely a river anymore. Still, it and the concrete and the barbed wire topped fence are the only things that kept my mother from saying her goodbye in person.
That, and the border patrolmen who roam on this side of the river, driving around in military green uniforms with yellow patches on their shoulders. Seeing them makes me break out in a cold sweat every time for fear that they’ll pull me over, and I have nothing to fear.
When the federal government seized the land along the river to build the fence, they left openings for cars to weave through so that the border patrol agents could drive on this side or that side of the fence, but always, always on this side of the river, always a warning of what could happen if you got too close. The river, the land surrounding it, even the beginnings of the cities on either side existed there long before them.
One hundred miles north of the border, there’s an immigration checkpoint, and it lacks all of the physical characteristics that make the border fence along Brownsville’s southern edge so clearly a boundary, even a bullshit one. It lays on the outskirts of a city called Raymondville and is surrounded by mesquite trees and rustling bushes. Depending on the day and the weather, it’ll be closed, empty, no one asking you to prove your right to cross beyond that imaginary line. This one makes it clearer how abstract the idea of borders is.
Still, even an abstract thing can cause trauma, and this abstract thing is what will keep my mother from coming to my graduation.
That’s how I know the image of my mother in the woods is a specter. On this particular night at Wallace Observatory, the 30th of September, if my data files have anything to say about it, a figment of my imagination glares back at me. It takes the shape of my mother. It is telling me—she is telling me—to figure things out. But not her things. My things. She is telling me it must be worth it. She is telling me that my sitting there, in the cold and the gloom of the red lights, collecting data for one of the last classes I need to finally graduate, has to be enough.
I wonder at how the stars must look as you cross the immigration checkpoint in Raymondville or the port of entry in Brownsville. I’ve never thought to look at the stars in the shade of a hundred-mile-wide cage.
The other students in the class, they take their pictures of star clusters. They record the spectra of different gas giants. They look for transiting exoplanets. I gather my data, too. I am a good student this semester. I might get an A in this class. While recording what the cloud coverage looks like every five minutes, I send a message to my mother. The first one since I called her after news of her father’s death. I do not know how to help my mother grieve her father. I do not know how to help her pain.
“Como estas?” I ask her. We have never conjugated in the usted form with our mother.
“Bien, mija. DTB.” DTB means Dios te bendiga. God bless you, she is telling me.
I am not religious. “I love you,” I say.
My heart is heavy as I place my phone down and look up through the red plastic of the computer screen. I think I can feel the weight of a glare lifting off my back. It is me and the stars again. Me and the stars and their incessant movement, their dance with time. Me and the stars and the violence of borders. The violence of a therapist telling me he is glad that my sisters and I could, at the very least, read to a dying man farewell words from his daughter. There is nothing to be glad about.
This is not a bedtime story. You don’t get a nice patch to put over your aching heart. In a red-lit clearing in the Massachusetts woods, you summon up haunted things instead, and then you realize. This is a horror story. You leave from this—I leave from this—fundamentally changed.
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