One Sunday evening I walked by the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris on the Boulevard Arago not far from where I lived and noticed that it offered free lectures once a month. I managed to procure a ticket online for a lecture there a few weeks later, “Du cœur des étoiles aux planètes habitables : les résultats de la mission spatiale CoRoT,” which translates roughly as from the heart of the stars to habitable planets, based on the findings of a space satellite with an acronym implying the French artist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot – even scientific missions in France align themselves in some fashion with art.
The acronym stands for Convection, Rotation et Transits planétaires, and the mission ended in 2014. This talk, a few years ago, concerned the mission’s findings up to that point, the planets found, the chance of life beyond us.
Although my French wasn’t great when I attended my first lecture at the Institut d’Astrophysique – I’ve since been there about a dozen times – I figured that since I had an interest in cosmology, I’d be able to understand some of what was being said, or as much as I generally understood of most conversational French during the first few months after my arrival in Paris.
Part of my interest in attending the lecture was to find out something new about the search for planets that might support life, of course, and another part was in participating in an event frequented by Parisians and acquiring a sense of terrestrial life in France. Each day there was made immensely interesting by my trying to grasp all the developments that presented themselves, seeming non-opportunities such as how commuters comported themselves on the subways to how people acted at free lectures on arcane subjects. At the Institut d’Astrophysique I might not have understood but a quarter of what was being said, either by the lecturer or the attendees, but I could acquire, perhaps, a better sense of where I was by observing the behavior of the crowd.
If you had a sense of the look of French life that comes from reading the fashion press, with its hermetic view of the world and what everyday people actually wear, you’d think that Parisians were all chic. But the people who made up the audience of this lecture – and I include myself – could have been disgorged from a subway car on the Upper West Side. We were dressed in beige and brown, we were resolved or resigned, we sported backpacks or carried canvas sacks, we were everyday folks at the end of an everyday day. In other words, we were all as unfashionable as ordinary people generally are, especially those with an interest in science (or an interest in attending free lectures on science).
And the lecture hall – about 20 semicircular rows looking down onto a blackboard and a desk that resembled a kitchen island with a sink and granite top – was packed. After a few introductory remarks by one of the institute’s administrators, a scientist who had worked on the Corot satellite mission presented his findings.
The visuals were sparse – and were displayed using an old-fashioned overhead projector – and the scientist’s remarks were a tad obscure, but I believed I understood a good part of what was being said. Or perhaps I imagined that in my eagerness to comprehend more about otherworldly exploration, and my own worldly mission to learn about myself and the unexplored worlds around me, I told myself I could follow what was being said. I was instead, I now believe, in thrall to the sense that I had forgotten my own personality and place in life, and was simply content to be among strangers themselves looking beyond themselves. The lecture was inspiring as a subject rather than as a lecture. The scientist read rather than spoke, though his muted enthusiasm didn’t prevent my sense of feeling the delicacy of longing that fills us all.
We filed out after about 90 minutes, in groups and couples and singles, into the courtyard of the institute and on into the waiting night. I wasn’t discontent with my evening, and I told myself I’d learned something, though I couldn’t recall exactly what particular details of the Corot mission had been related to me. It didn’t matter. I had something more: a fulfilling glimpse of the ordinariness of Parisian life, even the ordinariness of what I believed to be the exalted field of astrophysics, making the sublime just a little more approachable.
Paris was and is, however, enchanting. I was carried into beauty without raising a finger. On walking back along the Boulevard Arago and then toward the Avenue du Général-Leclerc, I looked up over Place Denfert Rocherau (with its fantastic, magnificently maned lion sculpture resting in the crossroads, grand and regal). Above it gleamed a full moon behind a pale scrim of clouds, hovering over the city. I wanted to stand and stare at that for hours, not only the luminous sky but the low skyline, the line of 19th-century buildings that permitted the urban horizon to reveal itself, as well as newer banalities, such as a hotel whose neon sign flashed “Hotel,” like a fugitive image from an Edward Hopper painting with its promise of melancholy solitude. Somehow extraordinary emotions possessed me. A general sense of the poetry of existence.
I love seeing the full moon in New York, of course, especially when it’s low and yellow and glowing just above the silhouette of buildings. But here, in Paris, it was the kind of thing I wanted to remind myself of forever – that it was real, that I was there, that this city really was that beautiful. That life might not have been found elsewhere, but mine was there at that moment, ordinary yet enraptured, the heart of the stars in the palm of my hand.