Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Golden Age of Astronomy

Copyright © 2004 by Joel Marks
Originally published in the Evening Division Student Newsletter of the University of New Haven, vol. 1, no. 5, June 2004

We live in the golden age of astronomy. The discoveries that are being made on a daily basis dwarf anything before in human history. Perhaps the only rival would be the prehistoric discovery of the starry sky itself, when our ancestors first looked up at night (or in the daytime too) and took note that what was above them was something wonderful.

Sad to say, the current explosion of human understanding of the cosmos is matched only by the unprecedented indifference to it by contemporary humanity. And that is likely due to the simple fact that what was plainly visible to our distant, and even recent, ancestors, is no longer so to most of us urban and suburban dwellers. The starry sky has been all but eliminated by light pollution. There is ignorance of even the most basic phenomena that were known for thousands of years, such as the phases of the moon, or the fact that the moon is not “up” at night all of the time, but spends half of each month (or “moonth”) in the daytime sky.

It is fitting, therefore, that I have been asked to write something about astronomy for the Evening Division Newsletter. When you folks leave your classes at night, your first response should be to look up! I would like to give you a few pointers about what to look for.

Paradoxically enough, the light pollution we experience might actually be an aid to beginning to learn your way about the night sky (provided you are still motivated to do so even though the light pollution obliterates so much). That is because only the brightest stars (and the planets and moon) will be visible, which form very recognizable patterns. Once you learn these, you can find everything else. I call these constant and readily recognizable denizens of the night sky “skymarks” – analogously to “landmarks.” (Any resemblance to my name is purely intentional.)

For example, the constellation of Orion is very easily identified. When you know where it is, then you can easily find Sirius (the brightest star in the sky), which is in the constellation Canis Major (the Big Dog), and the star Procyon, which is in the Little Dog nearby. I have chosen this as my first example because just the other night I was able to use this simple knowledge to find a comet! A sky chart I had found on the Internet showed that the newly discovered Comet NEAT (whose name is all uppercase because it is an acronym) would be just to the left of Procyon on that night. So I went outside with my binoculars and pointed in that direction. Right through the haze on the horizon I spotted the fuzzy patch that was Comet NEAT. Neat!

This won’t help you if you are a novice skygazer because Orion is not in a good position for viewing at this time of the year. It is highest in the sky during winter. Right now it has pretty much set by the time darkness descends. But my general familiarity with the sky had enabled me to find Procyon anyway. There were clues in abundance to one who knew his way about.

I would like to start you off on this lifetime journey of discovery in the same way that I began it: with a particular book, called simply, The Stars, by H. A. Rey. (Yes, the same H. A. Rey who wrote the Curious George books.) This book is readily available in bookstores and on the Internet. Its hallmark is the stick figures Rey used to illustrate the constellations. These are so much more effective than the fancy mythological drawings of yore. The stick figures really work.

I will never forget the first time I tried out Rey’s method. I was standing on a hill on the UConn campus at Storrs, looking towards the eastern horizon. According to the book, I knew that the constellation Sagittarius was rising before me. Suddenly the stick figure pattern jelled in my vision. Wow! There was this gigantic archer striding over the horizon, bow in hand and arrow ready to be let loose on the Scorpion he was pursuing (and has been since time immemorial).

I was hooked. Thereupon I studiously learned and located every other major constellation in the northern hemisphere. Now I can find anything at all in the sky, because all I need to know is what constellation an object is to be found in, and the rest is easy. Even if you use a telescope, the first thing you have to know is where to point it. The constellations will get you more than half way to your target.

So what do you look for? H. A. Rey’s book will give you sufficient background knowledge about what is up there to keep you busy for quite awhile. Another wonderful book (of which there are many) is 365 Starry Nights, by Chet Raymo, which will take you through every night of the year so that you can learn the whole sky systematically. Contrary to the common conception, there are many things besides stars in the starry sky, such as nebulae and galaxies. Even with the naked eye you can see objects that are millions of light years away (one light year is six trillion miles!) and, even more astonishing to contemplate, millions of years in the past.

But that’s just the “constant” sky – the skymarks. Meanwhile, and again contrary to today’s common (mis)conception, there is always something happening in the night sky: comets, eclipses, planetary conjunctions, even novae. With your knowledge of the constellations, you will be able to find them all.

Finally, one of the main things “happening” up there is the aforementioned knowledge explosion about what we are looking at. To keep up with this I can recommend no better source than Sky and Telescope magazine. My jaw drops (and stays there) when I read each monthly issue’s “News Notes” section. And by reading the regular articles and features over the course of the years you will become an expert amateur.

Then what you will crave to do is share the knowledge and wonder with everybody else. In other words, you’ll become just like me!

Clear skies! – Joel Marks, philosopher to the stars

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