Sheets to the Wind: The Stars

After first signing Brooke Stimpson’s space suit, Col. Randolph Bresnik, a NASA astronaut who had been commander of the International Space Station, autographed a photograph of himself at Guild Hall. Iris Smyles Photos Iris Smyles Photos

The constellations on the ceiling of Grand Central Station are backwards. It was a design mistake, which, when pointed out to the builder, Cornelius Vanderbilt, upon its opening in 1913, Vanderbilt, trying to save face, claimed that the inversion was purposeful: The stars were not meant to resemble the view from below, from man's eyes looking up from Earth, but from above, from God's eyes looking down.

I was thinking about this in the Guild Hall auditorium a few weeks back, as Col. Randolph Bresnik, a NASA astronaut, who’d been invited by the Montauk Observatory, which, as God would have it, did not end up being built in Montauk but at the Ross School in East Hampton, delivered a talk before a series of photos from his various space missions, most of them of the earth viewed from the space station, most of them, not looking out, but looking back. He pointed out Long Island to an awed crowd of 275 people. “So that’s what we look like,” I thought, studying the screen, as if it were a mirror.

"Man is the measure of all things," said the ancient Greek sophist Protagoras a long time ago in a village far far away before he was charged with impiety and drowned in the sea. He meant, roughly, that man's view is defined and limited by his own eyes. He cannot conceive of scale beyond his own. We measure a room in feet, for example, because that's what we use to cross it and say hello to Andrea Grover, Guild Hall's executive director, and Terry Bienstock, the Montauk Observatory president at a pre-lecture reception on a Wednesday night in Guild Hall's back room.

It was an exciting event "two years in the making," Mr. Bienstock said. Getting NASA clearance for Colonel Bresnik to come speak had taken Mr. Bienstock two years, while getting the observatory, now home to the largest research-grade telescope on Long Island, ready for its first viewing party two days later, had taken about 12. Mr. Bienstock, an astronomy enthusiast and eclipse chaser—he recently flew from Miami to Nashville expressly to see a total solar eclipse; he watched it from the airport parking lot along with a few others who’d flown in from London and Boston similarly, before hopping the next plane back—had gotten involved when, shortly after he retired as executive vice president and general counsel at Comcast, he read an article in The Star about the Suffolk County executive's refusal to purchase the telescope. Appealing to the community, Mr. Bienstock launched a mission, now accomplished, for its public support. The telescope was eventually funded by Montauk Observatory board members, and labor for the observatory itself was donated by Tom Frey Construction.

Colonel Bresnik was booked for two lectures: One for children on a Friday afternoon, and another two nights before in which he and his wife, Rebecca M. Bresnik Esq., an intergalactic lawyer at NASA and lead attorney for the I.S.S., delivered a lecture together, keeping our adult interests in mind. We learned about cancer research being done at the space station, the astronaut exercises that give you the best body, how zero gravity alleviates joint pain, and space ownership -- "Is there private property in space?" When will it be up for grabs? Better to buy south or north of the Milky Way?

To people "from away," the Hamptons are known primarily as a place to see stars. I spotted Luke Wilson last month at the Amagansett I.G.A.; last week I browsed the racks next to Steven Spielberg who was shopping with his daughter at Brunello Cucinelli on Newtown Lane; Alec Baldwin has written letters to the editor of this paper, while "Real Housewives" are as ubiquitous as the deer -- one must be especially careful of them when driving at dusk.

But to members of the Dark Sky Society, an organization devoted to keeping light pollution down, the East End is known for a different kind of stargazing. Eva Growney, an architect and former Dark Sky Society member, explained this while texting me a link to more information, before Mr. Bienstock, along with a few others taking turns at a telescope nearby, asked her to close her phone, for its light was ruining their view of Jupiter.

The East End is wonderfully dark. So dark, God can't see it, Vanderbilt might say: In the space photo Colonel Bresnik snapped of Long Island, our end of it was black. So here, in our little godless pocket of the universe, as well-exercised women try to broker profitable marriages with well-heeled men, as Real Housewives dodge the paparazzi they've tipped off to their whereabouts at Southampton's 75 Main, as a slick hedge funder yells at the Nick and Toni's maitre, "Do you know who I am?" and as "society" dresses up for yet another good cause -- all proceeds from the Ugly Baby Fund's third annual gala will go toward infant plastic surgery and help to raise awareness of this ongoing problem -- and I write about them all, a few others collect their telescopes and arrange to meet now and then in the dark. "The Hamptons are full of stars," goes the Montauk Observatory's tagline, "Just look up!"

These star-studded events -- featuring free tours of the night sky guided by volunteers like astrophysics professor Michael Inglis and physical sciences professor Sean Tvelia, along with a few of our local Solar System Ambassadors; or a lecture about Nikola Tesla by Sebastian White, a CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) physicist, and a talk about the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory by Nobel Laureate Rainer Weiss -- have been and will continue to be hosted throughout the summer and fall, and you don't even have to know Gwyneth Paltrow to get in. Space is a wonderful leveler. At the "Star Party," we're all small, happily.

Colonel Bresnik, who recently returned from 139 days in space where, as commander of the International Space Station, he orbited the earth in 90 minutes, viewing 16 sunrises and sunsets every day, was small among us.

We stood in the grass, in the dark, as lightning bugs chatted mellowly in the trees, and we talked about space, about waking up early, at 3 a.m., to get the best view of Mars, about black holes and the possibility of infinite universes. William Taylor, a local Solar System Ambassador (a NASA certified volunteer organization of amateur astronomers), directed Colonel Bresnik's gaze toward a "nearby" star cluster -- "You see that blurry thing?" -- while Brian Walker, the president of Stony Brook's Astronomy Club, told me space appeals to everyone for it invites the contemplation of "endless possibilities."

As a novelist and space enthusiast -- my short-lived Tinder profile read "I'm into space, ice cream, and staying home" -- my own interest in the cosmos focuses on the variety of ways people attempt to interpret it; it, being everything. There are the grand unifying theories of competing theoretical physicists; the abstractions of philosophers ancient and contemporary ("Why is there something rather than Nothing?" Jim Holt asked in his National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book "Why Does the World Exist?"); the fictions of writers like Arthur C. Clark who penned "2001" and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick or that guy I saw looking at slacks; the "Starry Night" paintings of Vincent Van Gogh; the astronauts like Colonel Bresnik who jokingly refer to themselves as "stick monkeys" and actually go where the rest of us only gaze, and the astrologers, too, who see in the stars a map of everyone they know, warning Mercury is in retrograde, making it a particularly blue day for you.

Astronomers dislike astrology -- Professor  Inglis stiffened at the mention of the word -- and would say calling it pseudoscience gives it too much credit. I don't believe my life can be traced in the stars, but I do enjoy a good story (especially one about me!), so I will now and then read my horoscope in a magazine. I'm "such a Pisces," I've been told by astrology buffs and was once given a coffee mug that describes my sign's "sensitive and generous nature." Each of the other 11 mugs in the zodiac flatter similarly, describing differently wonderful people, some "passionate!" others "fair!" which does not account for the many assholes cutting me off on 27. Where's that mug? "You are a prick," I'd like to read just once.

If we dismiss astrology completely on the grounds that it's a self-serving narrative devoid of science, insisting in its way that the universe revolves around you -- it's trying to tell you something, listen to Oprah and buy "The Secret!" -- we dismiss our own humanity, blind to the fact that all our possibilities are threaded through our limitations, and our humility, through our vanity. Our eyes, our feet, our minds. Even our curiosity, the way we frame a question, limits its answer.

When I went to see the astrology team Monte Farber and Amy Zerner last month to learn about pagan traditions surrounding the summer solstice, Amy gave me a tarot card reading and asked me to think of a question, before Monte said, citing "an ancient saying: If you know your question, you know your answer." I couldn't think of one, which struck me as a pretty accurate assessment of my life.

I'm better at asking other people questions. I have as many as there are stars--maybe. "Will man escape the confines of the Earth before the sun swallows it in 7.5 billion years?" I asked Colonel Bresnik before he gave his second lecture at Guild Hall, this one exclusively for kids. "I hope so." Will man ever escape his own questions?

After both adult and kid lectures, Colonel Bresnik took questions from the audience. "How does space affect digestion?" an older Italian man asked reasonably. While all of the questions were interesting -- their answers, too, (the food goes down just the same, but it floats in the stomach, so you almost never feel hungry) -- they also somehow fell short. There's a reason "2001," the greatest movie about space ever made, has so few words. How could anyone ever explain any of what it was attempting to explain? What we really want to know is ineffable. "What does it feel like to go to space?" a few kids asked, getting closest to the heart of the matter. What does it feel like to be alive?

Man is his own measure and like Protagoras will eventually be drowned in eternity. But in the meantime, there are parties. How far is the closest star? How many feet away was Steven Spielberg standing when he browsed the slacks?

Read about dark matter and Iris Smyles's trip to CERN: If It's Tuesday This Must Be the Higgs Boson

Next stop, space. Alex Choinski had Colonel Bresnik sign his model rocket.