Published by Esquire
Every ninety-seven minutes, the Hubble Telescope sails around the earth and takes a good, long look at deepest space. It squints its eye and transports us to a place ten billion light-years away, to a world before science and faith, before art and reason and religion, before time itself.
You can't see the beginning of time if you just look straight at it.
The most sensitive receptors in the human eye are along its edge. They deal with dim light and shadows, with the grays and mysteries and maybe-maybe-nots of the perceivable world. Nearer the center of the eye, there are receptors accustomed to dealing with bright lights and with colors, but these become useless in the dark. Look straight through a telescope and you can't see anything. You have to look slit-eyed and peripheral, the way gunfighters do, or soldiers fighting at night. If you want to see the beginning of time, you have to look at it indirectly.
You look, sidelong from the earth, through an ungainly beast, a concoction of solar panels and instruments and antennae and mirrors and sensors with a wide, flat door at one end--an inverted tin duck forty-four feet long, weighing as much as seven Buicks. Nearly four hundred miles up, it sails around the planet once every ninety-seven minutes. Every so often, the duck dances in its orbit, locking onto guide stars, and takes a good, long look out into space, which also is a good, long look back through time because light moves faster than history does, which we know because Einstein was right. It drinks in all the starlight it can, and then it sends the starlight back to earth.
The captured starlight comes down to a nondescript gray building by the side of a snaky road that winds through the campus of Johns Hopkins University, on the north side of Baltimore. Hawks come to this place early in the spring, nesting in the trees that rise from the deep swales and small valleys along the winding road. The tops of the trees are about level with the building's windows, and when the hawks fly by, it's startling to see them that closely, to count their feathers and to watch their wings work, to see things that ordinarily occur far up in the drafting air. Our eyes fly with them in close formation