Across the Universe

By Babak Haghighi

Writers find meaning in words. Musicians find it through notes, and artists through their art. Likewise, the astrophysics students who run the SFSU Observatory find meaning by looking at the night sky.

It’s a rare starry night in San Francisco—at least as seen from the rooftop of Thornton Hall. Expensive telescopes of all shapes and sizes decorate the SFSU Observatory, and red and black florescent lights surround them. Under the blacklight, orange and green chalk glows bright on a chalkboard, revealing the specifications of the telescopes. It looks like something out of a glow-in-the-dark bowling alley. The ethereal beats of Canadian band Purity Ring play from a laptop in the corner. It’s the first time Stephanie Lauber has brought music to the observatory, but it’s far from the first time she’s been there.

Lauber, a 25-year-old astrophysics student at SF State, has been running the SFSU Observatory for years. As a student with a more-than-heavy workload, she finds solace in looking out into space from the observatory.

“If I couldn’t come up here, I’d go crazy,” she says.

Her coursework requires endless equations and complex theories, but as a reward, she can look at the stars and truly understand them. Despite her impressive understanding of astrophysics, she is fascinated by the universe for one simple reason.

“Space is cool,” she says.

On a clear Wednesday night, Lauber and her fellow astrophysics classmate Dylan Pounds point the observatory’s best telescope at Jupiter. The $36,000 instrument is a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain with a reflective lens. It stands on a $40 concrete block. Through the lens of the telescope, Lauber and Pounds look at the largest planet in the Solar System and are impressed that the expensive equipment allows them to see the planet’s stripes.

“It’s fucking incredible,” says Pounds, who hopes one day to become an astronaut. “This thing [Jupiter] is so far away, and the fact that we can see it is mind-blowing.”

Other telescopes are pointed elsewhere, and there is much to see in the sky. The stars tell tales of Greek gods and their respective myths, and Lauber and Pounds know nearly all of them.

The observatory is open to the public every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, as long as the weather permits. However, it doesn’t get too many visitors. Heavy clouds and light pollution make San Francisco a less-than-ideal location for stargazing, but Lauber explains that it’s not as bad as people might think.

“Yes, it’s true,” says Lauber. “We can see stars from San Francisco.”

As Lauber and Pounds prepare to close shop, the Orion Nebula appears at the horizon. As The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” plays appropriately, Lauber and Pounds track down the nebula with the telescopes. Lauber picks up the Schmidt-Cassegrain’s controller, which resembles that of an Atari controller. She moves the joystick and the telescope reacts accordingly.

“This is the most frustrating part,” she says, eager to track her favorite nebula in the universe.

Being the brilliant astrophysicist that she is, Lauber has no trouble hunting down Orion. The telescope brings out the true beauty of what might otherwise look like a typical cluster of stars.

Once the observatory closes, Lauber and Pounds have to hit the books again. Equations, formulas, and theories await them downstairs. But when they come back up tomorrow, they will use those formulas and theories to explore the universe through the lens of a telescope—one star at a time.