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Mountain Climbing

I've always liked looking at stars. Growing up outside Tucson, Ariz., I was certainly in the right place to do so. The entire county is subject to strict light-pollution laws, in deference to the half-dozen observatories within an easy drive. We who learned to drive in Arizona are as baffled by the rest of the world's dependence on streetlights as we are by their insistence on grass being green.

The first time I became conscious of my city's ties to space was in third grade. An engineer from the University of Arizona came to tell us about his latest project: the Cassini-Huygens probe, soon to be headed to Saturn. He described how it would take seven years for the school-bus-sized mass of antennas and instruments to reach the ringed giant, by which time I would be 15-an unimaginably advanced age. He told us about Titan, Saturn's largest moon, shrouded in nitrogen so thick we could not see through it-the only other true atmosphere we know. Then he had us all sign a piece of paper. Those signatures, along with more than a half-million others, were burned to a DVD and set inside the probe.

The idea of my shaky cursive cruising the solar system fascinated me. From then on, I learned all I could about astronomy. My book of Greek mythology, already falling to pieces, was carefully reassembled so I could learn the stories of the constellations. Stargazing became a favorite pastime, especially in midwinter, when the Tucson skies are crystal clear. I tortured my little sister (according to her, anyway) by taking her out to our driveway in the middle of the night, where we would lie on freezing concrete while I lectured her on the lifecycles of stars.

In high school, I found that Arizona offered me another unique opportunity. For a month each summer, the observatory on Mount star-obsessed teenagers. I spent a week on the mountaintop, where days began at sunset and ended with eastern twilight, white light was forbidden lest it ruin our night vision, and daddy longlegs the size of our hands were casually removed from bedroom walls and chucked into dustbins.

That week I got to use telescopes professional astronomers beg for, taking pictures of distant nebulae and chasing an asteroid through the outskirts of the solar system. We also visited the Large Binocular Telescope. The telescope's two mirrors together act like an 11.8-meter telescope, making it the largest in the world.

We had the privilege of being in the dome as it opened at sunset, and I stood awestruck next to the 8.4-meter mirrors that had been cast in a lab under the stadium where my hometown Wildcats usually lost.

I left camp with a better understanding of what astronomers do and the thought that my love for the stars might not be a juvenile fascination-it might be my life. That year I started getting letters from colleges, and the first thing I looked for was an astronomy program. Those without went straight into the recycling bin.

The next fall, I packed my bags and left for Cleveland, where a truly mind-blowing number of streetlights mixed with lovely weather and a couple centuries of industrial pollution make it a minor miracle to see anything dimmer than Jupiter.

My destination of Case Western Reserve University was about as far removed from the pristine Tucson skies as I could get, at least at first glance. A second glance, though, would show the university's telescope is on Kitt Peak, across the valley from the mountain where I spent that amazing week. Last summer, when I returned to astronomy camp as a counselor, the camp had moved mountains, and I spent another wonderful week teaching the next group of astronomers the names of constellations in the shelter of Case Western Reserve's Warner and Swasey Observatory.

Emily Joseph graduated from Case Western Reserve in May with a bachelor's degree in astronomy. She spent the summer stargazing on a mountain again before taking a year to travel the country.

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