Bill loved people. Bill loved astronomy. Bill loved math. Put him together with all 3 at once and he was in heaven. While I was conversant in math, meaning that I could follow and appreciate his pursuit of geometric constructions and proofs, it was astronomy that we would inevitably gravitate toward, like comets to a star. I not only liked to talk anything astronomical with Bill; I also happened to have a telescope and dark skies, so he frequented my place by himself and often with Ruth and Juliet in tow or with other friends to watch lunar eclipses, planetary transits, gazing at meteor showers all night long on mattresses or lounge chairs, or looking for hours at the large disk of Mars during a particularly favorable opposition. The verb “to consider” literally refers to gazing at the stars, and our conversations seemed to flow more effortlessly in many directions under the influence of celestial bodies on those nights.
For Bill was a man of ideas. He was also a joyful empiricist who loved to poke and tickle reality to see what kind of reactions he could get. If he found an exciting idea, he would not just be content with it, rather he mixed it into his cauldron of other ideas and experiences to see how it would interact and transform, like a pinch of some subtle herb into a vegetarian stew or a new pigment into a raku glaze.
Because of this, it was always fun to bring newly found objects to Bill, partly to share my own excitement, but also to see it catch fire in his mind and watch what would happen to it when he threw it into his cauldron. I remember one time I was helping organize an international bioregional congress in the Flint Hills and came to Bill to discuss the possibility of using locally dug clay to fashion and fire a turtle figurine for each participant to wear as a kind of totem necklace during the weeklong event. Bill didn’t miss a beat, quickly recounting stories from his own life where he had found various clay outcrops with various consistencies and his experience refining it, what characteristics to look for, and before you know it, we were searching for appropriate seams of clay in the hill where I live, helping sift out impurities, screening, drying and wetting it until I had a clay that, with the collaborative genius of Laura Ramberg who came up with a design mold and firing kiln, resulted in a unique, beautiful and locally made token of this area for participants to take home with them.
Like the north star Polaris, one constant point of orientation in the unfathomable reality of the universe for Bill was a deep and abiding love of history and the stories of insight that aggregated together into knowledge. These stories were not dry, memorized facts for Bill, rather they were living lessons that Bill took great pleasure climbing around in, in order to personally experience those “aha!” moments himself, and sometimes even noticing new wrinkles of understanding missed by those that went before him. For instance, he delighted in the mathematical mettle of Aristarchus, one of his heroes who in 250 BC determined the sun to be the center of the solar system some 1700 years before Copernicus. I remember having a discussion with Bill about one of Aristarchus’ hypotheses where he estimated the distance between the sun and the earth by precisely observing the moon and its relation to the sun in the sky. Aristarchus made the geometric deduction that at the precise moment of first quarter moon, i.e. when the face of the moon was exactly 50% lit, the earth-moon-sun angle was exactly 90 degrees, while the moon-earth-sun angle would be slightly less than that. By precisely measuring that second angle, and calculating the resultant triangle, Aristarchus surmised the distance from the earth to the sun using the moon’s distance from the earth as the unit of measure. Aristarchus did not have very precise measuring tools to do this, leaning more heavily on mathematical intuition than empirically precise data, and estimated the difference between the two angles to be 3 degrees, concluding that the sun was 18-20 times further away from the earth than was the moon. As impressive as that was for the time since it was something that nobody had realized before, Bill was sorely disappointed that Aristarchus hadn’t been more precise in his observations, as the actual angle, instead of 3 degrees, is less than one half of one degree. Bill thought that Aristarchus should have been able to measure that small of an angle more accurately, coming much closer to the true distance to the sun as a result, which is some 390 times further away than the moon is from the earth. Bill discussed ways he thought Aristarchus could have come up with the more refined angle measurement that would have resulted in his better appreciating how really huge astronomical distances are. I argued that Aristarchus’ heliocentric conclusions had been ignored by most of the inheritors of knowledge anyway, so even if he could have come up with more precise conclusions about the vastness of the universe, that would probably been ignored, too. But sure, what the heck? Why not think about re-creating this experiment? Like many projects that characterized Bill’s keen intellect, much of the pleasure was derived from toying with the idea of doing something like this even if the actual project never came to final fruition.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago.
In the waning hours of what turned out to be the last day of Bill’s life, I spent a few hours with Juliet by his bedside while Ruth took a nap. Most of the time I spent there was spent visiting quietly with Juliet, helping make Bill as comfortable as I could, positioning him in bed, keeping his lips moist, helping Juliet greet and visit last minute visitors who came until the very end. I left before Bill, surrounded by a circle of friends and family, slipped away for good. When Ruth called me to tell me of his passing, I came back into town after taking a shower from working outdoors, not being able to sleep anyway. After hanging out a bit more with Ruth and Juliet, I went back home, and noticed that the moon sure looked like it was first quarter moon.
And sure enough, I looked it up. Bill’s passing happened almost exactly at the best possible time to make those measurements we had talked about taking. That time pointed out the solution to one problems we had pondered:
-In the last hours of Bill’s life, the First Quarter Moon was around 25 degrees east of south and the sun was just a few degrees north of due west. This position puts both the sun and the moon well above the horizon where an ideal measurement as free of distortion from the atmosphere would be possible. I can see you, Bill, in your moments before death floating up, gazing at this configuration, recognizing that this would allow accurate measurements of those critical angles in the sky we talked about, and with a clear-eyed satisfied understanding, where instruments were no longer necessary to discern what had eluded Aristarchus, letting go and merging with the music and dance that is the universe.
Be well, Bill. I’ll see you whenever I turn by gaze upwards into the sky.
(prepared for a celebration of Bill’s life, held at the Lawrence Arts Center on Saturday, June 29, 2013)