Right to Left

My brother Phil was an amateur astronomer from the time he was a kid. He ultimately worked in the area professionally,  helping to build systems to detect and analyze X-Ray sources at NASA.

When we visited our parents in Wisconsin over the Christmas holidays, we would sometimes star-gaze late at night, looking through Phil’s homemade telescope equipment. His enthusiasm was definitely greater than mine. On the other hand, with enough clothing, conversation, and occasional refreshment, it was a pretty acceptable way to spend an evening.  He provided entertaining commentary, both on what we saw in the telescope, and on any source of extraneous light screwing up an otherwise perfectly good sky.

And what was the number-one light pollutant in Wisconsin winter skyscapes? The moon. Personally I kind of liked the moon, and thought it would be interesting to point the telescope at the moon.  This suggestion was not only rejected, Phil explained that my conception of the moon as a morally-neutral object was both wrong, and wrong-headed.  From his perspective, the moon was nothing more than an observational problem to be solved, and life would have been easier if it weren’t in the sky at all.   .

One winter night we were looking through the telescope and dodging a half-full moon, with the concomitant grumbling about stray light. I had always been confused when I looked at a half-moon. Was it waxing – heading towards full, or waning?   But on that occasion I thought I knew the answer, and I said “Well, at least the moon’s waning.”

He stared at me.  “It’s waxing.”

“It is?”

“It is.  The phases of the moon travel right-to-left. Think of the moon as written in Hebrew.  Or Arabic,”  followed by several more colorful descriptors for Earth’s natural satellite – the waxing moon was going to mess up an entire vacation’s viewing.

I can’t tell you why I had never thought of it before, but from that moment on I never forgot – the phases of the moon move right-to-left.

As did Phil. Phil Deines-Jones died unexpectedly at the age of 48, and during a too-short life was cheerfully and naturally nonconformist from childhood on – a right-to-left thinker in a largely left-to-right environment. He once sent me a letter entitled “Entropy: Your Enemy and Mine,” which proceeded to muse, over four or five randomly-considered pages, on different philosophical concerns having nothing to do with entropy, or with each other.  It made sense, if you knew the man.  He was concerned with many things, including animal welfare and women’s rights.  He was unconcerned with whether his thought processes were the same as other people’s, or even all that understandable to other people. It wasn’t a priority for him.  But as a result, he could often provide that very rare thing – a truly different perspective.

Our relationship in later life was challenged.  But I think of him fondly now, whenever I stop to admire the moon on a pleasant evening.  And now I do remember: right-to-left.

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