Monday, April 30, 2018

The Daytime Sky

This is a reprint of something I wrote for the now defunct HAL Forum way back in September 2013. I thought it worth revisiting in these beautiful spring days.

This morning was just too beautiful to let pass without taking advantage of it, so I decided to walk the 3 mile round trip to the grocery store to get the handful of items I needed for tonight's dinner. Along the way, I couldn't help but notice the horizon-to-horizon cloud-free sky overhead. My first thought was, "Why couldn't it be like this in the middle of the night, dammit?"... But my second thought was, "Wow, look at all that blue up there - it almost hurts the eyes!" And boy, was it ever blue. As it can only get on one of those late-summer, low humidity, hint of fall in the air, mornings like today. I found I couldn't take my eyes away, and had to stop for a while before I ran into something.

All that brilliant blue got me to thinking about how we visualize our place in the universe. All too often, we thoughtlessly dismiss how the Ancients viewed the cosmos - Earth at the center, everything else revolving about us in concentric spheres, like a gigantic version of one of those Russian nested dolls. But when we pay attention to how artists and writers living before Copernicus actually depicted the Cosmos and forget what we have projected back onto them, we discover that wasn't really the case at all. A far more accurate statement would be that they considered the Earth to be the bottom of the universe, and only incidentally its center. Near the end of The Divine Comedy, Dante imagines himself has having traveled to the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, looking back on the Earth:

My eyes went back through the seven spheres below,
And I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space,
I had to smile at such a sorry show.
Who thinks it the least pebble in the skies
I most approve.
(Paradiso, Canto XXII, lines 133-37)

And there are many, many other examples as well. But this should suffice to put to rest the misguided idea that the Ancients somehow believed that we occupied some sort of privileged spot in Creation.

But what does all that have to do with that blue, blue sky up there this morning? Just this - up to only a few centuries ago, Mankind thought that the whole universe looked like our daytime sky. They were well aware since at least 200 BC that the Sun was far larger than the Earth, so it was easy for an educated person to deduce that the Earth's shadow would be a cone (as it in fact is). And being unaware as yet of the refractive properties of light, they may be excused for imagining that the darkness of the nighttime sky was restricted to that part of the Heavens which happened to be within the Earth's shadow. The rest of "everything up there" was assumed to be as brilliantly lit as the noontime sky on a cloudless day. What a glorious vision! No wonder Milton could write such lines as:

Those happy climes that lie
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky.

But we know better now, right? Hah! Speaking for myself, despite all I know about the structure of the universe, the Milky Way, the Solar System and our place in it, I still picture the sky as being somehow "overhead", with myself "down here" looking up at it. I still refer to Sunrise and Moonset, and to Polaris not moving in the sky. And it's damn hard to not think in that way.

It was only a week or so ago, when for a brief moment at a Carrs Mill Star Party, I caught a glimpse of what it would be like to visualize things as they actually are. There were only two of us there that evening, Dwane and myself. I was looking straight overhead at Vega, when without warning I (quite literally, and not figuratively) practically lost my balance, I got so dizzy. I suddenly saw Vega as not being above my head, but rather straight in front of me. The Earth was no longer beneath me, but instead I felt like it was a wall to my back, with me somehow pinned to its side - looking not up, but out, at the stars around me. I had to sit down.

I was almost relieved when things got back to normal - Earth down here, stars up there. (It was rather fun to take a peek at Reality - but just not for long.)

Do get out there on the next clear, sunny day and try to look through all that blue up there. It can be exhilarating (as long as you can get back down).

Thursday, April 5, 2018

In Defense of Starhopping

"Lonely Scope" 
Image by Mike Krauss, taken the night I first saw Barnard's Star
80mm Stellarvue Refractor on Manfrotto tripod

I'm occasionally kidded at star parties for my lack of "technological" accessories in my gear. I'm out there with tripod, mount, refractor, and 3 or 4 eyepieces, and of course my chair. But that's it. No go-to software, no computer even, no tracking... heck, I don't even have a finder scope. For my part, I enjoy being able to set up within 5 minutes tops and then sitting back to watch others struggle with a million pieces of equipment while I take in the deepening twilight, waiting to catch the first stars coming out for the night.

And then, after we're all set up and everyone is polar-aligned, I start out on my list of "must sees" for the evening - sometimes finding what I'm looking for in a matter of seconds, and at other times struggling for half an hour or more to nail down that uber-faint 10th magnitude star that (let's be honest) looks like every other star in my field of view.

Meanwhile, everyone around me is selecting their targets from the database on their go-to mounts, and I can hear the whir of the scopes as they slew round to the exact spot in the sky desired. No hunt, no search, and any frustration is levied at either the equipment or the alignment.

Now I can appreciate the utility of such a procedure, if your primary purpose for being out there that night is imaging. You're not going to be looking at anything anyway, and the less time searching the more exposure time you have. I get that.

But I must be perfectly honest here. When the purpose is observation, I fail utterly to understand the desire to forego the hunt and head straight to the target. Would somebody please tell me where's the satisfaction in allowing our machinery to have all the fun? Would a fisherman enjoy a day out on the lake if he brought along a robot that located all the fish and reeled them in? Would you admire a diving catch by a right fielder at Oriole Park, if you knew that his glove was guided to just the right spot by embedded software within a prosthetic arm? (Hm... I wonder. Will that be a real world problem in the near future?)

Now I just got out of Howard County General Hospital, where I spent the better part of last week trying to not lose my right leg to a virulent infection. (I am on the mend!) While there, I had nothing else to do but read, read, and read some more. One of the things I took in was a short story by the English writer G.K. Chesterton, which went something like this. Two brothers meet up with a wizard who offers to grant one wish to each of them. The first brother, who always wanted to "see the world", wishes that he would become a giant, so he could walk with ease from wonder to wonder and take it all in. The second brother's wish is that he would become just inches tall. Both wishes were granted, and the first brother immediately set off on a whirlwind tour of the globe. But it wasn't long before he tired of the whole affair. It took no effort to go from the Great Wall of China to the Parthenon to Machu Picchu, and before you knew it, everything simply bored him. He returned home miserable and unsatisfied, despite having "seen it all".

Meanwhile, his brother (now only 2 inches tall) went from flower to flower, from stone to stone, from raindrop to raindrop, drinking in the wonder and beauty of it all. The strenuous effort it took to climb atop a mere stone in the back garden only made the view from the summit all the more appreciated.

This story immediately made me think about starhopping. It's rather like being 2 inches tall in a garden of spectacular beauty. It takes time to go from star to star, from Messier object to Messier object, and sometimes you never do get to where you wanted to go. But you don't care! In fact, the hunt is often (but not always) more satisfying than the finding. And there are unsuspected discoveries to be made along the way. I've long ago lost count of the lesser-known globulars, the NGC-cataloged open clusters, the unnamed sparkling asterisms, and even the odd unlooked-for Messier objects that I chanced upon while looking for something else - sights I otherwise might never have laid eyes on. (That is how I first saw the Sunflower Galaxy.)

What follows is something I wrote several years ago and posted to my (now inactive) earlier blog, Celestial Pilgrimage:

One of the wisest books I know, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, contains the following passage (which I have here slightly altered): "People no longer take the time to learn anything. They'd rather buy things ready-made in stores. But since there are no stores where you can buy what is truly important, people no longer have anything of importance ... It's the time you spend on something that makes it so important."

Take the time. You will thank yourself afterwards.