Monday, June 15, 2009

A Tribute to My Brother

My brother’s name was Donald. He was six years younger than me. Through a very unfortunate set of circumstances, Don passed away one year ago today at 46, leaving a wonderful daughter (my niece) to fill a significant void. Our family is still trying to make sense of it all. I wanted to pay him a tribute on a public forum like this because he never got his day of fame, so in this small way, maybe now he can get a little just due.

Don was a smart kid. Truth be told, he started off a lot more brainy that me. He was the bookworm between us when we were kids, always reading all sorts of books with those black horn rim glasses of his. He favored science oriented books, especially dinosaur books. At only 6 years old he could recite the names of just about any dinosaur. He’d talk of the Cretaceous period with intimate familiarity like the back of his hand. When asked by an adult, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” Don would invariably reply proudly, “I want to be a paleontologist!” Not bad for a precocious grade school kid. When asked the same question at the same age, I said I wanted to drive a trash truck. A kid’s expectations are funny at that age.

By the time Don was in middle school, he transitioned from thunder lizards to the night sky. Don became an accomplished amateur astronomer. He was one of those people who you find at star parties, the one who knows all the constellations, planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and other deep sky objects. And this was years before the advent of the “Go to” telescope that automatically locates sky objects for you. Don did it all himself because the entire night sky was firmly implanted in his head.

Don did everything possible to further his knowledge of astronomy. He subscribed to Sky and Telescope magazine. He bought a nice 6-inch Celestron reflecting telescope that he parked up on top of our car port and would spend hours up there each night. He went to the Griffith Observatory every chance he got. And more recently, he told me how he’d pack up his telescope in his car after work during the week and head out to some dark sky area, park the car, take out the scope and watch the heavens for hours and hours and then run home to grab a few hours of sleep before work the next day. I appreciate that kind of devotion and he showed it at every step of his development.

Don never became an astronomer. He wasn’t good in math. In fact he hated math. Sometimes I think he didn’t like math because I turned out to be good at it, and sibling rivalry was strong in our family. But I think the bigger reason was that one particular 5th grade math teacher, Mr. Putnam, convinced him he was awful at math, and so he was. A career in astronomy without math isn’t really possible, and it is a shame that one unfortunate experience in 5th grade would shape a youngster’s future, but I think this happens all the time, and makes it even more imperative for parents to keep a watchful eye on what school does to their child. Over the years, I tried to suggest to Don that he become an “observational astronomer” or do something related to astronomy like write for a magazine, or work at the observatory in some capacity, or write a book about star gazing, or any one of a thousand other things. But life has a way of dampening passions early held dear.

I’m sorry to say that Don never realized his potential in science, but I know in his heart, he was a scientist, that’s how we grew up. His memory is strong in my mind because he always represented the ineffaceable curiosity of a young person channeled to a life of science. When I close my eyes I can still see him up late at night, alone on our carport, counting each Perseid meteor during the infamous mid-summer shower, and how he’d look up to the sky with wonder and awe as they streamed down through the atmosphere and wink out as quickly as they appeared.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful tribute. I love little brother too.
    Love Sis


Thank you for choosing to leave a comment for the Physics Groupie. Much appreciated!