% Brian Biswas- The Moons of Jupiter

The Moons of Jupiter

When the doctor told me I had epilepsy, I was shocked. I'd suspected something might be wrong for some time. I heard voices. I was other places. But never this. This most hideous of diseases. This could never happen to me. There was no history of epilepsy in my family. I had never suffered from seizures or auras of any type. I was twenty-one years old and I had my entire life ahead of me. Nothing to point me in this direction. Perhaps the doctor was mistaken? But, alas, subsequent tests confirmed the original diagnosis: petite mal seizures that would only worsen over time unless immediate action was taken.

The doctor gave me pills that turned the walls of my bedroom many colors. They pulsated. They bled. One sultry August night--the year was 1926, the year Arthur Eddington published The Internal Constitution of the Stars--I clung to my girlfriend, Isabella, as I felt my mind beginning to swoon and then convulse. We were in the backyard of my parent's home in Peoria, Illinois, gazing up at the constellations, and suddenly the firmament came crashing down upon me and I was drowning in light.

Oh my God, I thought. You are going to die.


An epileptic's life is no fun, let me tell you. For one thing you never know where you are. You could be here. You could be there. And in reality you're neither place--or rather, you're in both places simultaneously. Twilight worlds that flash in and out of existence.

I was passed from physician to physician. No one knew what to do with me. The diagnoses multiplied, the prescriptions multiplied, but my condition only worsened. Eventually I ended up in a local hospital. I was filled with so many drugs I didn't know who I was or who I had ever been. A specialist from University Medical Center examined me and to my amazement he took me off all medication. "There is nothing wrong with you," he said. "It's all in your mind."

I said somewhat sarcastically: "Of course it's in my mind."

But he was right of course--it was all in my mind--and when I realized this I began to recover.

I learned to control my epilepsy.

And then I learned to control other things.


Galileo Galilei did not discover the moons of Jupiter in January 1610 as history has recorded. The German astronomer Simon Marius did--in November 1609. Marius, however, never published his observations, mentioning them only to his friend Johannes Kepler, who wrote of them in his memoirs many years later. Galileo made extensive observations and published them in the journal Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610. In 1614, Marius did provide what would one day become the names of the Jovian moons based on a suggestion from Kepler.


"Jupiter"--Marius wrote--"is much blamed by the poets on account of his irregular loves. Three maidens are especially mentioned as having been clandestinely courted by Jupiter with success. Io, daughter of the River; Inachus, Callisto of Lycaon; Europa of Agenor. Then there was Ganymede, the handsome son of King Tros, whom Jupiter, having taken the form of an eagle, transported to heaven on his back.... I think, therefore, that I shall not have done amiss if the First is called by me Io, the Second Europa, the Third, on account of its majesty of light, Ganymede, the Fourth Callisto...."


The first moon I came upon was Callisto, the outermost of the Galilean satellites and the only one to orbit beyond Jupiter's radiation belts. Callisto is the third largest moon in the solar system (but not the largest Galilean moon; that honor goes to Ganymede) and is about the size of the planet Mercury. It is the darkest of Jupiter's moons and is the most heavily cratered object in the solar system; its surface age is estimated to be four billion years. A long dead world.

I put down near the crater Lofn, a shallow, circular crater about sixty-two miles across. Callisto has no atmosphere and so I put on my space suit and emerged from the ship, gently stepping out onto the oldest landscape in the solar system. I traveled along the Adlinda Basin, following the curve of the crater.

Now if you've never been to Callisto, you will want to listen closely. Many of Adlinda's features are obscured by ejecta from the crater. The ejecta covers an older, more densely cratered surface that includes sinuous ridges and fractures. There is a salt water ocean deep inside Callisto that is reached by means of a channel found at the bottom of one of these fractures. It is a two-day hike through splendid geologic formations: thermal vents, sulfuric lakes, and enormous ice sculptures. And it was when I reached the ocean that I began my search for Callisto, the daughter of Lycaeon, for she was known to inhabit this region of the moon. I doubt that I will ever find her. Probably she died in this godforsaken place out of sheer loneliness. (And who could blame her?) At one point I see what looks like a winged deer flying overhead--the bluish-green antlers are magnificent--but it may have simply been my imagination.


Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain, specifically excessive electrical activity in nerve cells. There are two main seizure types. In the most dramatic, known as grand mal seizures, the subject loses consciousness, falls to the ground, shakes violently, and becomes stiff. He may become blue in the lips and foam at the mouth. I have never had one of these seizures. There is another type, known as petite mal seizures, in which there is simple alteration of consciousness without the theatrics. With grand mal seizures there is often a warning of seizure onset, for example, an olfactory, visual or auditory hallucination, or a sensation of pain or nausea. With petite mal seizures there is usually no warning and in my case there is no warning. Isabella tells me I appear to lose consciousness, but that the loss is brief, that I stare straight ahead, blink, fidget with my hands, and sometimes appear nervous. This is not the way I perceive it. Rather, I feel that I am someplace else--time out of mind--and the feeling persists for maybe two or three minutes. Sometimes I feel I am both here in this world and there in that world and that is a very strange feeling, let me tell you. Life with one foot in two doors.

None of the known causes of epilepsy are pretty: brain damage, brain infection, brain tumor, brain hemorrhage. But I do not think there is anything wrong with my brain. My epilepsy is due to something else, some other abnormality, but I have no idea what. My seizures are often followed by drowsiness which lasts several hours.

During our courtship, I was forthright with Isabella. I told her my brain was filled with epileptic vibrations which could only be controlled and would never go away. I told her she could leave, that I would understand. In fact, that I expected her to leave. She said it did not matter. She would never leave. I loved Isabella for this. For her acceptance of my condition.

"Of course you know what this means?" I said. "It means I am not now and never will be normal. It means your life with me will be confusing at best. It means there will be good times and there will be bad. It means there will be times you will not know who I am. (There will be times I will not know who I am.) And still you can say that you love me?"

"Don't be silly," she laughed. "I love you for who you are."


The second moon I came upon was Ganymede, a pretty moon the color of milk chocolate. At 3,273 miles in diameter, it is the largest moon in the solar system, larger even than Mercury and Pluto and three-quarters of the size of Mars. It would be a planet if it was in the right orbit only it isn't and that is really something to think about. Like Callisto, Ganymede is composed of a rocky core that takes up nearly half its diameter. It is covered with a thin crust of rock and ice. Its surface is a mixture of two types of terrain: old, heavily cratered regions, and younger regions with an extensive array of grooves and ridges. Visible in the north and south polar regions are bright polar caps, consisting of water frosts.

My destination was Crater Kittu, a dark crater about nineteen miles across. It took the better part of a day to reach Kittu from my spaceship and the skies were growing dark when I scrambled over the narrow rimwall and crossed the crater's smooth basin. It was in the middle of the basin, an area covered with volcanic deposits, where I found it: a stone image of Ganymede. The beautiful one. The statue was six feet high and exquisitely sculpted and if I had not known better I would have sworn it was alive. In his outstretched left hand Ganymede held a chalice.

I gaze at the statue and I sigh it is so beautiful. And I know that Isabella, like the statue, is immortal. In my mind she is immortal. I reach out for the chalice. I know the liquid it contains will solve my troubles. It will make me immortal. And then both Isabella and I will be immortal and we will never part. But of course the statue vanishes before my eyes the moment my fingers are about to touch the magic cup. And I am left alone once again. I feel a seizure descending over me like a fog and I close my eyes and breath in deeply several times as the doctors had commanded. Luckily the seizure passes quickly, but I am left alone and I am afraid.


Isabella and I were wed on the twelfth of June, 1927, after a year-long engagement. (We would have wed immediately--so in love were we--but our parents insisted on the standard betrothal period). The engagement was the happiest time of my life and as I think back on it now I can only weep at my good fortune. I don't believe I had a single seizure the entire time.

It was a wedding ceremony I will never forget. In attendance were Isabella's parents and mine. My two brothers. Her sister, her sister's husband, and their two children. And six of Isabella's friends.

"Do you take..." the preacher began and that is all I remember. Isabella says I became rigid, my eyes staring into space, arms stiff at my sides. She says it lasted at least five minutes--longer than usual--and though she told everyone to remain calm they reached a point when they could wait no longer and a doctor was called.

I, of course, remember none of this. The next thing I recall Isabella and I were hand-in-hand, running down the church steps into a blizzard of rice. (Isabella told me later that just when the wedding party was about to panic, I snapped out of my trance and returned to normalcy. "I am not God," she said I said. Or rather whispered so that only she could hear.) She threw her bouquet into the air and her sister caught it. And I caught her eye--Isabella's eye--and I saw what I hoped I'd never see: a look of uncertainty. This only for a brief second, mind you, but one I would never forget. For, you see, though Isabella had always insisted she would never leave me--and though this most likely was true--there was still this lingering doubt within her. That look betrayed her.


My third destination was Io. A very interesting moon. Its surface is young and has almost no craters, unlike the others. It is the most active volcanic body in the solar system. Parts of its surface often change within weeks. Its terrain is mostly flat plains rising no more than a thousand feet though I have observed mountain ranges up to six miles high. The surface consists largely of sulfur with deposits of frozen sulfur dioxide. The surface itself is very colorful, mottled with red, yellow, white, orange, and black markings. Now, others may have their own favorites, but I think Io is the prettiest moon in the solar system. I wish I had married here. It is that beautiful!

I set my spaceship down near the moon's equator. I saw mountains and a variety of lava flows. A horseshoe-shaped lake filled with dark, basaltic lava. To my left loomed Haemus Montes, a rectangular-shaped mountain, and off in the distance Creidne Patera, a large dark volcanic complex.

It was on the Maasaw Patera, one of Io's prominent mountain ranges, that I spied Princess Io. I called out to her but she did not respond, and considering our relative ages, it was probably best. I had seen her several times before, you see, but had always been incognito--dressed once as a pastry chef, once as a diplomat, once as a priest--and I do not think she recognized me. There were several questions I wished to ask her, most notably: was it possible I was her son?

It is true Princess Io and I are separated in time by two thousand years. But it is possible that I was her son then--as I am myself now--and that my epilepsy is the manifestation of my being both here in the now and there in the then. A simultaneity of sorts.


I have come to believe that my brain exists in two places at once and that the moons of Jupiter are the key. This, I tell Isabella, is why I must repeatedly return there. She does not understand and advises me to seek psychological counseling--insists on it, in fact--and says further that she will accompany me.

We spend many hours on a black leather couch in front of an elderly man with incandescent eyes. He has the odd habit of tapping his pencil several times on his desk before asking me a leading question and so I quickly learn to anticipate the traps he is attempting to lure me into. Several times he wipes his brow with a handkerchief, as if he finds my mere presence unnerving, and his right foot swings back and forth like a metronome. His mannerisms become so bizarre I am certain he must be suffering from jungle madness. He listens to me and nods and occasionally says things that at the time seem to be of no consequence but in the end do seem to help. I conclude that perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps my journeys to the moons of Jupiter are only flights of my imagination as the psychologist finally and triumphantly--with a thump of his fist on his pitted oak desk--claims.


Europa is the smallest of the Galilean moons, yet it is the sixth-largest moon in the solar system and is only slightly smaller than Earth's moon. It is the smoothest moon in the solar system and has only a few shallow craters. Europa's pale-yellow surface consists mostly of water ice; it looks like fractured glass that has been repaired by an icy glue oozing up from below.

Europa is pulled in different directions by Jupiter and by the planet's other moons. The flexing of Europa's surface continues until the brittle crust cracks, causing volcanoes to erupt violently and showering the surface with material from below. This material forms Europa's most striking feature: dark streaks that crisscross the surface. Heat generated by the expansion and contraction melts part of the crust underneath the surface; this along with the infall of organic material from comets creates lakes that are filled with the ingredients of life.

There is a shallow crater in the southern hemisphere that is filled with liquid water. I scrambled over the rim of the crater--a rim no more than several feet high--and came upon a scene of breathtaking beauty: an enormous lake perhaps one mile wide. The lake was dotted with islands that were composed of a darkish material. Blocks of ice, perhaps three dozen feet in diameter, floated on the surface. The air was deathly still. It was on the shores of this lake that I came upon Europa of Agenor. She was a lovely creature, almost as lovely as Isabella. She was wearing a white robe and sandals. Her long blond hair was loose. She was looking out over the lake and did not hear me when I approached. I said nothing to her. I had no desire to startle her.


I remember when I told Isabella of my encounter with Europa and how she looked at me strangely. She took a deep breath and I saw that she was fighting back tears.

And it was then I realized I had lost her. I had lost Isabella.

She cried out angrily: "I never know when you're here or when you'll be away!"

I said simply: "I know."

She calmed down then and looked at me with her soft brown eyes. She started to sob. "I'm losing you."

"I'm always here," I said. "It's just that I'm not always all here."

"I can't live like this," she said. "No one can."

"I love you."

"Love has nothing to do with it. You need help. Can't you see what is happening?"

I was silent.

"No," she continued. "I guess that you can't."

What more could I tell her? What more could I say to Isabella? Only this: that many famous people were epileptics in their time: Julius Caesar, Vincent van Gogh, Theodore Dostoyevsky, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Peter the Great, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Sir Walter Scott, and Jonathan Swift.

And me, when I am not here and have gone to that other world. That world where immortality awaits.

But, of course, I said none of this. Instead, I begged forgiveness.

She looked away in fear.

And it was then that I played my final card. I suggested that Isabella come to Europa with me, to get away for a few days so we could rekindle our past love, but she would have none of it. "I can't do that!" she exclaimed, and for the first time in our marriage I began to wonder if perhaps everything was falling apart. It would have been nice to go with her, though, and who knows, maybe things would have turned out differently between us.


I no longer remember when I left Earth for the final time. I'd left so many times before, but had always returned, usually within a month, a week, a day perhaps, occasionally before I'd even left. "Isabella," I said the night before I vanished into the cosmos forever. "Remember to call the repairman about our refrigerator. It's breaking down again." She smiled and kissed me on the cheek. There was nothing else to say.


It turned out that Isabella did call the repairman. He was there in the kitchen examining the refrigerator when I returned a week later to see how things were getting along without me. He didn't seem to notice me, at least he didn't acknowledge my presence when I walked into the room and said hello. He was a burly man, over six feet in height, with thick brown hair and the ruddy face of a construction worker. He had pushed the refrigerator away from the wall and was carefully examining the coils.

"They're shot," he said after a few minutes. "There's not a damn thing I can do."

Since I was not really present there was nothing I could say or do. Not that I would have said or done anything anyway. I stayed a few more moments, watching in wonder as they looked at each other like two people who had forgotten what it was that protocol now demanded.

"The money," I whispered into Isabella's velvet ear.

She paid him what he had requested and he thanked her. He wrote out a receipt and then he left. I stayed a moment longer, knowing the end was at hand, but finding it hard to leave. Sometimes even when you realize the time has come you find it impossible to say good-bye. Is-a-bel-la! If I could I would put you in my spaceship and fly off to the moons of Jupiter, for only on the moons of Jupiter is there nothing to fear and nothing for which one ever needs to be forgiven.