By Daniel Schantz
I was a high school freshman in 1957 when the Russians stunned the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. I was living in the little town of Sabina, Ohio, where my father was minister of the church of Christ.
My brother Tommy and I were like the rocket boys in the movie October Sky. After school we would stuff homemade propellant into cardboard tubes and fire our miniature missiles high into the air, where they would disappear, never to be found.
But we wanted to go higher, farther into space, so one evening my brother announced, “I’m going to make a telescope.” He showed me the plans he found in Sky & Telescope magazine. “The hard part is the mirror,” he explained. “It has to be perfect or the stars will be blurry.”
He set up shop in the parsonage basement, better known as “The Dungeon.” For days we took turns grinding the mirror by hand, using finer and finer grades of Carborundum, until it had just the right concave surface. Then Tommy mailed the mirror to a laboratory to have it silvered, while he assembled the rest of the telescope.
One December night, just before Christmas, he set up the finished instrument in the church parking lot. The air was crisp and the sky was clear, as Tommy pointed his telescope at Jupiter. With trembling hands he focused the eyepiece.
“Oh, wow!” he gasped. “I can see three moons circling around Jupiter!”
“Let me see, let me see,” I begged. Tommy finally relented.
As I ogled the planet Saturn, with its mysterious rings, Tommy read to me from his guidebook: “That’s Andromeda Galaxy,” he said, pointing to the east. “It’s two million light years away. And that dark spot is the Coalsack, where there are no stars for trillions of miles.”
It was an inspiring experience, but as the evening wore on, my sense of awe was crowded out by growing anxiety. How could God possibly be interested in us humans? I wondered. We are so small, just a speck of dust in an infinite universe.
I lay in bed that Christmas Eve pondering my smallness and thinking of the Scripture, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4, King James Version).
My mother had a knack for knowing what gifts to get each of us kids. On Christmas morning, we opened our small presents first, then she handed me my “big” present. I ripped off the wrappings to find a blue metal chest printed with the words, “Gilbert Microscope and Lab Set.” Inside was a black, metal microscope with three powers of magnification: 60, 90, and 250. The kit included tweezers, glass slides, and specimens of fish scales, insect wings, and feathers for viewing.
“A microscope is kinda like a nearsighted telescope,” Tommy explained, “but instead of making faraway things look close, it makes small things look big.”
Within minutes I had the microscope set up on the dining room table, where I could catch some window light in the microscope’s mirror. All day long, I peered at a world of miniature wonders. A hair from my forearm was a bullwhip. A drop of blood was a city of red houses (“blood cells,” my brother explained). A drop of water from a mud puddle teemed with wriggly worms. A fly looked like a gossamer angel with a monster’s face. Grains of salt were ice cubes with rainbows in them, and sugar looked like pearls. The detail was astounding: precise patterns and shapes in sparkling colors, as if someone had carved and painted each piece.
By evening I was tired and ready to put away my microscope, but on a whim I swiped a dust ball from the floor to examine it.
When I peered through the lens, I stopped breathing. Ordinary dust, when greatly magnified, looked just like the universe I saw through the telescope, complete with stars and planets, comets and nebulae. It was the Milky Way in miniature.
That evening, as I lay in bed, I no longer felt so small. “I’m not the biggest thing in the universe,” I said to myself, “but I’m not the smallest, either. I guess maybe I am somewhere in the middle of creation.”
I slept well, knowing that God is here with us, even in the dust beneath our feet.
Daniel Schantz is a professor emeritus of Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.