A Romance written in the stars
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA — How can you possibly get more clichéd than romance and the stars? There are star-crossed lovers, heavenly romances, not to mention moon-lit strolls and wishes made on the evening star (which fittingly enough is actually the planet Venus). The night sky is dripping with romance. But in my case, the cliché is literally true; my husband Andrew and I are both astronomers; we met because of the stars. Having science in common has turned out to be a wonderful bond for us. Scientists to the core, during the course of a day we comment on the latest scientific news, solve problems together (we often get ourselves un-lost by observing the angle of the Sun or finding the ecliptic at night), or even wax philosophic about the meaning of the universe over tea on lazy Saturday mornings. Being scientists also gives us a common attitude about life. Astronomy is hardly a practical pursuit, and I love the passion, curiosity and sense of fun that Andrew and I share.
And yet, for better or worse, the stars keeps us apart. We both have to travel quite a bit for our jobs. Andrew is helping to build the Keck Interferometer, and is away in Hawaii about ten days a month, and I'm usually away at least another ten days of each month too. We have to work hard to maintain separate careers. It's often lonely and stressful, and there's definitely an aspect of having to re-learn how to be together after we've been apart for most of a month. But maybe that's the star looking out for us as well. The stars brought us together, give us a common bond, yet keep us far enough apart that we never just get to relax and take our relationship for granted. And I have a feeling that for two scientists, that may be the best of all worlds.
It was actually the hottest, most massive stars in the universe that brought us together in the first place. I happened to pick the topic of O-type stars for my dissertation. These beasties are the most massive stars known, often around 50 times the mass of the Sun. They burn through their nuclear fuel in only a couple millions of years, after which they explode catastrophically, becoming supernovae. Because these stars are so short-lived (at least compared to other stars), they are quite rare. So rare, in fact, that only a couple dozen are close enough for us to study in detail. And it just so happens that most of those are only visible from the southern hemisphere.
One of the astronomers I worked with, Theo, was from Australia, and suggested that I apply for time on a telescope Down Under. Theo also had an old friend named Andrew Booth who was a professor at the University of Sydney who just happened to live near the airport, and could probably pick me up and get me settled before I sent off to the telescope. Unbeknownst to me (Theo gave me the e-mails years later to amuse me), Andrew had tried to get out of this responsibility. He had better things to do than squire around young students on their first trip to Australia and let them crash in his guest room. Still, after a little arm-twisting, Andrew conceded to the request.
After an exhausting 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, I stepped off the plane and looked around for this Andrew Booth, whom I had never met nor even had a good description of. To this day, I consider what happened next to be the stuff of which dreams are made. Fresh off my first trans-Pacific flight, and after a small mix-up that had me waiting around the entrance to customs for a while, I laid eyes on Andrew. And for some reason, the world stopped.
I'm not kidding. I remember every detail of that moment. Andrew is an uncharacteristically snappy dresser for an astronomer, and he was wearing a teal-colored silk shirt with a brocade waistcoat. I've always been a sucker for English men, especially those that have a bit of the dandy about them (I had a major crush on Tom Baker as Dr. Who when I was a teenager. Enough said.) Andrew also has the most amazing smile in the world. He has these warm brown eyes surrounded by deep, curved smile lines, and a large expressive mouth full of wonderfully crooked "British" teeth, accented by a short red-brown beard. When I saw that smile and that brocade waistcoat coming toward me, I was immediately intrigued. Despite being exhausted and jet-lagged, by lunchtime I was trying to work phrases into the conversation like "... and your wife? ... your girlfriend?" "Oh, you're not seeing anyone right now? How interesting."
In between all-nighters at the observatory, Andrew and I managed to cram in our first date, dinner and the Barber of Seville at the Sydney Opera House (how's that for a first date?) We talked almost until dawn, a few hours after which we were standing back in the Sydney airport, saying a rather nervous goodbye. Our first kiss was a public kiss goodbye. Andrew missed and hit my nose, but I reciprocated and hit the mark. Somewhere over the Pacific I looked down at the sun-speckled waves and thought, "I love you, Andrew." Needless to say, Andrew wrote right back to Theo (another e-mail that I have preserved for posterity), demanding they send that grad student back to Australia as soon as possible.
What followed next is something I would hesitate to recommend: a four-year lost distance relationship. We just joke with each other that we had a very "Victorian" relationship. Andrew was an older, established man who could do nothing but write endless letters to his younger, distant lady love. I got to Australia once or twice a year; Andrew would swing by the US when he went home to visit his family in England. Andrew would come along on some of my observing runs and cook dinner for me before I went off to spend the night at the telescope. We had fabulous holidays together (the Great Barrier Reef, small English country inns, trips to Chicago), but very little else. We would never have made it without e-mail. In the end, Andrew did one of the bravest things I've even seen someone do. A fully-tenured, promoted professor, he resigned from his job and moved to the US, to be with a woman he had spent maybe a total of 20 days with in the last four years.
That was not a practical, reasonable thing to do. The very idea of our relationship was impractical from the start. What sort of idiots would try to keep a relationship together over many years and separate hemispheres? Neither of us were desperate or devoid of other romantic offers. But we just couldn't get the idea out of our heads. Something felt right about this. But you see, another thing I like about scientists is that they respect a hunch. You can have all your scientific method down, all your experiments done accurately and recorded in minute detail. But most of the significant, universe-changing advances in science were not done by methodically plodding ahead with reasonable steps. Things like Einstein's theory of relativity or the foundations of quantum mechanics came about more as hunches. Scientists talk about a theory being elegant - it just feels right. Sometimes you have to just trust your instincts. People often talk about following your head or your heart, but sometimes there's a deeper feeling you follow. Sometimes you follow your guts, your instincts. Scientists are also trained to do that.
It's not that there's a simple happy ending to the story. Andrew and I had a hard time turning our long-distance romance into something stable, something that really worked. Andrew found a job working for the Jet Propulsion Labratory (JPL) in California, which he loves. I had to be near him, so I took a job that was not in my field of study, moving more into administration and management. It was a compromise, but it turned out just fine. Now we've been married for almost two years, and I can honestly say that I've never been more in love with anyone in my life. Andrew is an incredibly supportive partner who gives me as much space as I need. He also knows when it's time to slip away and just have fun (this Friday we plan to skip out and go to Disneyland - don't tell my boss). And I love the fact that we'll always have science. Not just the logical, practical science, but the passionate, silly, instinct-following part too.
Want to see our wedding photos online? Go to: http://www.geocities.com/mlthaller/wedding.html