The Observer’s Cage

Show me that picture again. How marvelous. Of all the photos, this one made it into a textbook. This must be from ‘67. The discovery gets, what, a paragraph? A line? But I can see why they chose to include the picture. It’s a good one. I’d forgotten about it, but I remember the day. Lizzie’s smile is genuine. It looks like someone said her name and she is lifting her head from reading the telescope’s radio printouts, and you can see what was written in the pages on her face. Beaming, that’s a fitting word. Emitting: caught between the telescope and the world of the living.

She loved being the first to know. To have a great secret to unleash upon us all. That hunched posture, maybe not the most flattering, but accurate. She was often like that, hunched over printouts and readings and dials. Quite a revealing photo: see how Ernest is just behind her, has already adopted a grand pose, has thrown a hand on her shoulder? That’s them.


I did? Well, that makes sense now why I’m not in it, if I was the photographer. I’d forgotten.


Thank you for humoring an old man like me. I’ll try to remember. It makes sense that most of your questions are about Lizzie. I’m glad she will be getting the prize. Very well deserved. Too late, though, isn’t it?


I had come to stay with them, Lizzie and Ernie, at the ugliest house in England, a little cinder block cabin that skirted the edge of the telescope’s field. Just the three of us and some sheep, situated only an hour or so away from Cambridge. I rarely left. We had too much to do. Each day, the telescope generated hundreds of feet of paper, of data. The long scroll sprawled across the table, spilled onto the floor, pooling and curling.

The cabin was owned by the University, as was the meadow, but it was ours alone for those two years. Funny how so short a span, so long ago, can be the hinge you swing open on, like an enormous door.

At first I had the pullout couch. There were always dishes in their sink. The cabin was made of modern, austere materials: concrete blocks and high narrow windows. The opposite of Cambridge and its stone arches. It pushed us often to the outside, even when it was cold. To smoke and look out at the telescope.

Don’t imagine a disk; don’t imagine a chalice embracing the sky. Instead imagine a grotesque grid of wire and sticks. Like a labyrinth made of fencing, always listening. The posts kept the wires up and out of the moisture of the grasses, at an elevation of about five feet. You see, the telescope ran on radio, so the grid was cast over a wide area of the countryside. A big net to catch radio waves. The Four-Acre Telescope, we called it.


There’s a telescope in the States, in California, that I visited much later. Palomar, in San Diego. One of the last great reflector telescopes, a glorious 200-inch mirror. I went there mostly to pay homage: that sort was the kind of majestic telescope we had doomed into oblivion, even though ours looked like a county science fair project in comparison to Palomar’s grand barrel and dome. By then I hadn’t spoken to Ernie or Lizzie in, what, twenty years?

I visited Palomar during proper night. I was given the insider’s tour by a fellow astronomer; they let me sit in the observer’s cage for a spell. I climbed a ladder into the elevated chamber near the machinery of the telescope.

Back in twenty, he said. Then he closed me in. I was suspended in a tube. My only companion was the telescope. You become essentially a human component of the device, devoted to its care and interpretation, dwarfed by it. Some compare it to a prison. I had to wait for someone else to let me out.

That’s how our ugly cabin seemed sometimes: an odd observer’s cage for our odd telescope. Bare, isolated, close-quartered, a little wondrous; we were just watchers, together. Floating apart.

I remember us laughing at some shared joke over a meager meal of what we called bachelor’s pasta: al dente spaghetti with a pat of salted butter to melt onto the noodles, and a can of whatever was handy–Heinz tinned vegetable salad, turnips, or wet peas–on top of that.

No, I can’t remember the joke. Only Lizzie slapping my knee and saying don’t you dare. There were only proper dining chairs for two, so one of us, a rotating third, was always seated in the cushioned plaid lounger pulled up oddly to the table. It wasn’t the right height; from it you couldn’t quite reach the light and the meal and the utensils and the wine. You were forced to sit back and watch, like dinner theater.

I imagine from the outside the cabin must have looked like a beacon, alone in the wide dark field, blaring light and music out the small windows. We’d play records and dance and sing the lyrics loudly and badly late into the night. We had no neighbors.


I had met them, both of them, at a beginning of the semester party at Cambridge in 1964. I had wanted to impress Ernie, as I wanted to be pulled into his research group as a post-doc. I was carefully sober and sharply dressed and attempting to be very clever. Lizzie, Elizabeth, was introduced to me as a ‘faculty wife.’ I know. Ludicrous, now. The telescope was her design, though based on Ernie’s research.

It was en vogue to play Motown at these parties, at least that year. The Ronettes. I remember because Lizzie, afterward, at the cabin, was always humming something doo-wop-y, to herself under her breath while at work in the meadow or at the little receiver desk.

They were married before they came to Cambridge, so yes, Lizzie was the faculty wife, but she was also an unfunded, unacknowledged research partner. She’d never have got the position on her own, that wasn’t a question back then. There were some women, later, in the seventies, among our postgraduates, but only a few. I often suspected Lizzie had married Ernie to get into the group. She never denied this when I accused her—

Wouldn’t you have done the same? she asked.
Oh, I’d have done much worse, I said back to her naughtily.
Worse than marriage? Hardly!
Her laugh felt like a dare.


It was not glamorous work, not like their rooms at Cambridge, which were filled with books, with freshly-bound reports and graph paper and the smell and smudge of graphite pencils, little colored dregs of liquor lining the bottom of heavy glass tumblers left out on the veneered side tables from the night before.

Rather, everything in the cabin was vinyl, slippery, used by the previous tenants. There was the constant impression the two of them had been up all night talking and working. I romanticized their tiredness, the sleep in the corners of their eyes, the glamor of Lizzie’s curls that were oddly bent by falling asleep in her chair with her head sideways against the cushion. Some nights I put them to bed, carrying Lizzie, Ernie leaning heavy against my side, my shoulder, my chin, his touch a heavy electric line, not unlike the wires that made our telescope. Apt to tangle. Gorgeous when she is asleep, Ernie said to me. Lizzie didn’t hear.


In the early years the funding streamed in—Cold War cash for the strongest radio receivers possible. The Service was mad about the idea. They had only a vague idea of how the telescope worked, of what was possible. But they liked Ernie’s clean haircut, his pressed jacket, his shoulders. His reassurances. The novelty of the technology. They left us alone mostly, but would phone in nonsensical requests every odd month. They’d had reports of a covert Soviet submarine operation near Antarctica, could it hear that?

No, it could not–there was an entire, dense planet between Antarctica and the telescope. That kind of thing. For that reason, when we first caught the signal, we kept it to ourselves. We had no idea what it was, what it meant.


When she found it, Ernie was off on a speaking tour of German universities, so the maintenance and minding of the telescope was left to Lizzie and myself. It was a galoshes-and-cocoa affair.

Part of my job, as junior researcher, was to untangle the sheep when they got caught in the field of wires. When a sheep ran afoul of the telescope it was as if a parcel of the sky vanished, dead, emitted no more warm fuzzy radiation. Ernie joked that we might hear a heartbeat, if the beast were to crucify itself just right.


I knew something was odd because she stopped her humming. She held the cushion of the headphone against her ears. She sucked in on her cigarette and then forgot to let it go. She coughed. The smoke and sound burst out of her into the room.


Set the scene? I remember there were fruit flies in the summer, in the cabin. Bastard flies. I poured bleach down the sink to try to outroot them but still they came. They made little living halos around our glasses of sherry. Accusatory. I led the campaign against them; Lizzie could not be bothered, and Ernie was so often away. What worked best as a trap was a drop of dish soap in a cup of cider vinegar, or in more of the wine. The soap breaks the surface tension of the liquid so that the fly cannot find purchase, and sinks into its favorite drink. They’d float there, but none of the other flies saw that as a warning.

Poor Ernie, he came back one late night from some university in Belgium to find the front room empty, must have been parched and the lights must have been low, he tossed back a glass of that horrid mixture. We both awoke to his sputtering. Lizzie figured out first what must have happened; she sat up in the sheets and started laughing. I left to help Ernie.

You can ask, it’s alright. We’d been in bed together. It was not a secret. Well, it was, but not from Ernie. Ha. If anything he’d ask to watch, if not join in.

Ernie was paranoid. He said they’d cut our funding if they found out what went on between the three of us. Of course he was probably right.

I’m glad things are easier now, for people like me, people like us. I hope they are.


I’ve always wondered how other people avoid falling in love, all the time, with everyone they meet. I think perhaps they are not watching closely enough.

If you are a touch ugly, as I was—all knobby knees and Adam’s apple and thin hair perpetually outgrowing its conservative cut—you are more likely, perhaps, to be watchful. To catch the little gestures, like when Ernie turned Lizzie’s wrist over and over to the rhythm of an American song, the way you might make a dog’s paw dance, while she read Nature. He was the best dancer of the three of us. Lizzie was always slow by a beat, Lizzie who went soft in his arms, as if he could infuse her with grace. She was small; it was a surprise how bossy she could be.

In the morning before it got too hot, Lizzie would be out in the meadow maintaining the lines of the telescope, her hair up in curlers under a plastic yellow bonnet. Sometimes she’d change for dinner. It might be just a fresh, clean sweater, but her hair would be glamorous. Curled. She had a bit of camp about her. Another reason we got along. Both of us performed our roles. Fighting over Ernie’s attention, and then comforting each other when he was absent: he was often absent, often at work or off otherwise.

Funny that work is being away from the telescope, I remember Lizzie would remark. Of all of us, she was the most tied to the telescope. It had been her idea. All these men and their obsession with disk size. A thirty foot disk, a sixty foot disk, a hundred foot disk. Part of her genius was to imagine a different shape: the wide fragile net.


Of course. They say if you rolled out all the nerves in the body end-to-end they would go for miles. The telescope was like that. A field of wires, nerves, 120 miles laid out in a grid, back and forth and back and forth, sensing, listening, receiving.

I’d call out positions and frequencies while she’d record, then we would switch.

Lizzie knew the telescope intimately. She had nicknames for the nodes that most often failed and required the most attention. Her fussy dozen. I think she liked them more for their noncompliance, for their constant need to be untangled and tightened and set taut.

Lizzie preferred it out in the meadow with the wires, even in the bad weather. A badge of courage. Only an astronomer would be found there, she seemed to insist, not an astronomer’s wife. I played her assistant, though technically I was part of the lab and she was ancillary. Perhaps that’s why the two of them chose me for the project, at least at first: my willingness to defer to Lizzie, to submit to her authority.


As I said, in the end Lizzie heard it first. As so often, Ernie was away, so she shared it with me. We huddled around the receiver. For a moment we were the only two people on the planet, the only two of our species to share a secret clue about a thing very far away, about the nature of the very elements. Can a church wedding hold a candle to that?


Is it strange that she did not wear makeup when Ernie was out? Is it strange that I did? We felt rascally and wild, egging each other on. The shade of her lipstick that looked best on me was Aubergine. My eyelashes have always been naturally long, longer than hers, with the effect on my slim face and frame of making me look rather like a tall, lanky fawn. I’m sure this all seems tame to you now.

It seemed tame then, is what I am trying to tell you. There was no audience to be scandalized, except for one another. It was just us and our insatiable curiosities. Ernie would blush when we teased him about such things, then he put his hand on my trouser, my thigh, and Lizzie egged him further. Don’t you dare. He liked being teased; we liked teasing.

I’m trying to say that out there in the cabin it was as much drag for Lizzie as for me when she put on a dress, eyeliner, her blush.


Ernie? Ernie was able to do the work of two astronomers, because of her. He was in two places at once, able to be out promoting the project while the telescope was well-minded. You have to remember that this may be an extreme case, but it was common back then. Every man we knew was twice as accomplished as they’d any right to be.

He wasn’t a villain. I think of him as boyish, despite being the definite head of our little household. We were possessive about him. After all he was both of our tickets, his attention like a lantern. We feared what would happen if it waned.

My father had dogs like that, like us, once. When he was with them, they were testy and jealous of each other, ears and tails up, baring teeth and knocking each other in the skull to get to his hands. When he was away, they could not be apart and slept in one bed.

Ernie was good at people, the kind of man my father was glad I was working under, as if that would straighten me out. Ha.

He’d write little dirty jokes in the margins of the printouts before I would analyze them. He’d pass me a sheave of papers, saying have a look at these, won’t you? Something curious in there.

Inevitably I’d end up red-faced when I found his penciled handwriting. Even though no one was around to see. His words were pushed in, so even when I erased them, the indent remained. When the experiment ended, all those papers were folded and stacked and boxed and sent away to the university. I wonder if they are sitting in some archive somewhere.

Ernie’d watch to see if I’d betray some subtle reaction. I’d shuffle the volatile pages back into the stack, still smoldering, like a magician’s ace. He’d chuckle from across the room at his own desk.

Later he’d come up behind me when I was washing the dishes—Lizzie probably occupied with the field or the receiver—and press my hip bones into the cheap linoleum counter so hard that they bruised.

He could be surprisingly tender, too. Soft, like a barely-browned apple, a side he showed only the two of us. When I was down with a bad fever, it was he who soaked a wash towel in chilled water and draped it over my brow. I must have looked atrocious. He bent over me, mirroring my delirious expressions. When my frown relaxed, his did too. He put his hand on my chest, silent, till I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I could hear the two of them bickering a room over in the small kitchen. Pacing and whispering sharp sudden words I couldn’t make out. Honestly I found it comforting, having them so near, even their arguments. One of them, Ernie, I suspect, had used a book, Hoyle’s Nature of the Universe, to prop open the window and give me a breeze.

He was very devoted to Lizzie. He isn’t to blame in this. He didn’t design the world that couldn’t recognize her accomplishments, but neither could he imagine a different world, a better one.


I doubt after all this time…well, I’d appreciate it if you ran it by Ernie first. Play him these recordings, will you? I’d like to know what he thinks. Is he still of sound—?

No, no, not for years. We’ve never talked about it. Not then, not now. I wasn’t sworn to secrecy or anything like that. The world has changed so much in the intervening years. Will you play this for him? I’d be curious to see what he says.

I used to follow his achievements in the news, but it has been a long time since he’s been mentioned. It seems strange to be such old men,never stops being an alien idea. I don’t like to imagine him that way. His youth was part of him, as much as his intellect and his shyness and his hunger.

Play him this and see what he says. Maybe he’ll let you share it, or part of it. Maybe he will deny it. Maybe it will make him remember.

Will you play it for him?


Yes—right. A regular, strong, distant thrumming coming from the Crab Nebula. It did sound almost alive. Lizzie pushed her headphones deeper into her skull.

At first we called the discovery a bit of scruff. A bit of faff. In case it was nothing.


We went through many notions of what it might be. We looked for terrestrial causes first. I went out to try to clear the lines but they were clean, clear, empty, waiting. Eerily still in the morning sun.

We considered a fault in the equipment. Or the Soviets, of course. I called around to the local authorities to see if anything strange had been reported, any beams of light or weather phenomena. We checked the papers. Nothing conclusive. Meanwhile the thing just went on; Lizzie never stopped listening. It must have been maddening for her. The beat going on and on and on. The printouts flickering.

The pulse was undeniable and steady, if unexplained. Stupendous in the oldest sense of the word, of being unfathomably large and incomprehensible, uninterpretable, though that was in theory what we were set to do: to make sense of it.


“Pulsating Source of Radio” was what we put in the paper. There wasn’t a name for them yet, of course. The regularity of the radio blasts was in itself an irregularity. Nothing like it had been heard before. 150 beats a minute.

I was glad it was Lizzie that found it. We’d been looking for something else entirely. But, when you start listening, you can be surprised by what you hear.


Ernie came back two nights after we’d started tracking the pulse. Seeing our faces he dropped his bags right by the door and came over to the monitor.

No! Really? he said. His bags stayed in that spot for what felt like weeks afterwards. He clapped Lizzie on the shoulder. He picked her up and spun her around; her shoe fell off. She was grinning but practically scrambling to get back to the headphones already. I know she must have loved him because instead of putting them back on her own head, she pulled the headphones over to him, uncoiling the heavy gray cord. She studied his face as he frowned, listening.

You could tell Ernie was a bit hurt, to have missed it. In his absence we’d already moved beyond his early misconceptions and enthusiasms.

No, it moves, turns as the night sky turns, so it cannot be local to the solar system.

No, the frequency remains stable over time, so far at least.

150 beats-per-minute.

It doesn’t appear to contain any sort of message, except, perhaps, I am here; I exist.

Ernie suggested extraterrestrials, and though that had been our first thought, too—little green men beating a great cosmic drum millions and millions of miles away—there was no real reason to suspect that was the source of the sound.

Ernie pursed his lips and resigned to listen as we described the moment Lizzie had first heard it, interrupting ourselves to laugh, remembering how we stumbled around and clutched at each other. You see we had feared it might disappear, might only exist for a moment.

But it kept on thrumming.

It was like dipping your fingers into something really eternal and sprinkling it on yourself, a blessing, a momentary reminder of the vastness of the cosmos. Like the cool basin Catholics have at the entrance to their dark cathedrals. Holy water.

Ernie sat with the telescope and donned the headphones often after that. He annotated his own set of printouts, he compiled tables and figures, but he could never enter the moment of discovery. The seal was already broken.


Lizzie would return, often, to listen to the sound. When she walked by she would hook the silver headphones with one finger and nest them in her curls before even sitting down at the receiving desk, before reaching for the corresponding printouts. Even when it was my shift she might sometimes, passing by, pluck the headphones off my head, or lift just one cup from my ear so she could nestle in momentarily, side to my shoulder, ear to nose, her nostril breath fogging up my glasses. We’d hold very still. Like a single animal, a fox catching the electric scent of a distant thunderstorm. She’d hear the beat, confirm it was still going, and then go back to the relentless, tireless maintenance of her fragile telescope made of such humble materials: sticks and wires.


The paper listed only the two of us, Ernie and me. You’d like me to tell you she was outraged? She was not. She got back to work. She said she was glad: she wouldn’t have to lose time to present the paper, to manage the edits, to receive the awards, to write recommendations, to shoehorn her feet into heels. In retrospect, sure, we’d all like her to have been a vanguard for her sex, to have rallied and accused, to have made a righteous stink. But that is not the woman I knew. She cared little for the world of men.

If she was frustrated she didn’t tell us. Maybe—I’ve never considered this before—maybe she didn’t think us worthy of telling.


People are drawn to pulsars; people call them “lighthouse” stars, which is very accurate. The “pulse” is more accurately a beam of energy sweeping out from the poles of a quickly spinning star, like that of a great lighthouse. The “pulse” is us being caught in the light.


I accompanied Lizzie to the doctor. We didn’t correct the nurses who assumed I was her husband. When they used the ultrasound machine on her stomach it was as if she’d swallowed the thing, the signal, by all that incessant listening. We looked at each other quickly; I knew she was thinking the same thing. It was miraculous.

It didn’t last, though. There was to be no child.

It didn’t last, but it did speed the deterioration of our unconventional arrangement.

Suddenly, they wanted privacy, their door was often closed to me. Give us a bit, they said. They didn’t specify what the bit was. Time maybe, or distance. The child might have been mine, but they thought the grief was all theirs.


Lizzie’s discovery was part of a reckoning, a reframing of the way we speak about the universe. The violent universe they call it now, the view that the cosmos is not cold and perfect and orderly but warm, hot, violently hot, full of bodies tugging on each other—full of collisions and divisions.


I’ll grant she was openly livid about the end of the project. After the discovery went public there was talk of the Nobel. Ernie was offered a position at a prestigious Australian university. There was nothing she could do but follow. She had no credentials of her own to continue the work alone, and it had always been the property of Cambridge even so: the cabin, the receiver, the posts, the wires, the field. She slammed the front door of the cabin with such force that she dared you to follow her. She walked out among the wires for a time, alone, till it got dark.

There wasn’t some dramatic parting, not one moment I can point to. Just a gradual cooling, the decline of their attentions. There was an understanding that the two of them were leaving for Australia and that I was not invited.

They began to confide in each other again, without me. They were still fighting but neither came to me anymore after their rows. We somehow lost each other in that three-room cabin.

We had to train the new crew on how to use the telescope; the cabin would be theirs. Ernie and Lizzie left the task to me, as junior researcher. I was surrounded by their boxes and their rubbish—the things they couldn’t be bothered with.

The flies persisted; they’d come back in the heat. I showed the new recruits how to loop the paper in the printer so it came out clean and unwrinkled. I tightened the loose wires. I bent on the floor and scrubbed for the first time in two years. Layers of grime. I wiped us clean.

When I went back to Cambridge that fall every bench seemed empty, every hallway full of people who were suddenly younger and less interesting, less real than we were. I didn’t stay long myself.


At first I felt taken. A victim of their voracity, their wanting to be loved, each wanting to get more than they gave, and me a willing worshiper at the altar of their marriage. They wanted their marriage more because I wanted in. They wanted each other more because I wanted them. They wanted to control the drawbridge, and they did: they pulled it up.


The signal is still there, of course. For years afterwards I’d point toward the Crab Nebula and listen. From Cambridge, from California, from anyplace. We’ve identified thousands of other pulsars, but none with that exact frequency. It won’t go on forever, but it is going on, still.

Now I find it rather pretty, the thought that the bodies of the cosmos are not orbiting in perfect regular solitude, like was once thought. Rather they are exerting their gravity on one another; they are left a wreck by each other. Some of the most beautiful nebulae appear to me as great bruises, where star systems have collided and bent each other into marvelous patterns of color and light. Lizzie would say I am being poetical, by which she means dramatic, by which she means sentimental, which to her was a form of blindness.

Despite all the jealousy and frustration I think of them warmly now.

You can drown in love; I’m sure that’s not a novel notion, but it was new to me, to be allowed to. To be allowed in the secret rooms, at least for a while. To have no part of me kept apart and secret.

There was one more happy night, before we all left the cabin for good. We stepped outside into the night and tried to catch sight of the Crab Nebula with our bare eyes—a long while sitting very dark and quiet and still and all looking together, becoming just sense, sensation. It is a dim thing, but it is there, if you keep looking and waiting. Of course we ended up hearing and sensing each other too, reaching for each other even if we didn’t mean to. Ernie’s hand on Lizzie’s. Lizzie tugging on my scarf in a rhythm, her brows furrowed.

Ernie saying darling do you see that? and none of us sure who he meant.

In a way I’ve spent the remainder of my life trying to get back to that cabin: the small, drab outpost where the universe seemed vast, vast and wild enough to embrace all of us, all of me.



When Mother names me does she reclaim her own decay. I am born and I am dying. Doctor holds my tits in his hands. My flesh which is not my flesh retracts.


at the company banquet; with the velvet drapes drawn; while most here would rather

pretend space is a backdrop painted for earth