May 20, 2008

Let's Get Small

I got a chance to visit the night sky again when I went home to Florida recently. It’s been a long time since I looked up in quiet appreciation. At this time of year the earth looks outward to the edge of the Milky Way and beyond. That means there are very few features to see except stars unless you have a powerful telescope.

In Florida at 23° latitude, the Big Dipper and Orion are visible in the same sky. That does not happen easily in Indiana skies at 40° latitude. There is a feature in Orion that can take your breath away when you understand what you’re seeing. More on that in a minute.

When you look up at the stars, all you see are a bunch of dots. When you look through a telescope at the stars, though, you can see…well, a bunch of dots. Stars are so distant that magnification is almost meaningless; they don’t get bigger. But if you have a large enough lens, you can see more stars and more color. In astronomy, size matters.

If you look through a medium-sized (8” wide) telescope at something besides a star, don’t get your hopes up. It will look nothing like any picture you’ve been privileged to see in the past fifty years. The human eye is not capable of gathering light and building an image the way a camera can. The bright bands and storms of Jupiter are barely-visible pastel features. It seems a little anticlimactic to see the Great Pink Spot. You can see Saturn’s rings occasionally in focus and, on a good night, the shadow they cast on the planet. Mars remains a larger dot (which magnifies only because it is close to our planet). Nebulae are barely-visible clouds of gray vapor.

But you’re looking at the real thing in real time; and when you think about that and your place in the universe, suddenly you get the true picture at just how small and insignificant we are in the scheme of things. This is sobering and exhilarating at the same time. The more I learn about the nature of our universe, the closer I feel to God. He is revealed to me in the complex and intricate interactions of forces and matter that make up what we know about the nature of reality; and we know so little. It is a joy to learn new ways to understand the physical plane because it reveals the spiritual plane as well. Art is a window to the artist’s soul.

I turn my eye to Orion—remember Orion?—and look at the three almost horizontal stars that make the belt. Below the belt are three or more vertical stars that comprise the sword. On a dark winter or spring night where there are few lights, you can make out a greenish-gray cloud around the central stars of the sword. In 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars—aperture is everything!—you can see textured clouds of dust illuminated by the light of newborn stars: a cosmic nursery. 1200 light years away, a star is born.

Have you lost your childlike Wow Factor? Looking at deep space objects through just a pair of regular binoculars should bring it back. Find a basic star map to know where to aim, and look up. Wow.


bigislandjeepguy said...

i'm right with you there on looking at the stars. i can't think of anything that makes me feel more of a sense of...wonder. amazement. and yea, the "wow" factor. i can literally sit in a lawn chair in my yard and stare up at the sky. well, until jeep starts barfing up grass. that always kind of wrecks it :)

Bill said...

I love looking at the night sky when I'm away from city lights. It seems that the longer you look, the more is revealed.

"Cosmic nursery." What a compelling phrase.

tornwordo said...

This makes me want to go camping.

Anonymous said...

Out here in the wilderness, January is the best time to star gaze. My youngest and I spent several nights standing in the middle of the yard with hot chocolate, staring at the night sky. I love her fascination with it all.

Patrick said...

Stars have been one way for me to regain perspective ever since I was a kid (growing up in Indiana, by the way); yes, I'm strangely comforted by seeing how small I am in the scheme of things, and I'm returned to a child-like wonder that brings me closer to divinity. More often I need the scale of earthly things for the latter; I wrote a post some while back about how compost makes me feel closer to a creator. But yes, the magnitude and beauty of the night sky is restorative. Right now the lights of New York City have me longing for some unbroken darkness. I may get some later this Summer.

Lovely post, Birdie.

Cooper said...

I always feel naked when I watch the stars. Naked of soul and body. Small, and yet large, too, contained within and a part of the dust of this universe.

somewhere joe said...

We're star stuff. No wonder we look up and find our heroes, friends, destinies, and a poignant longing.

I'll never forget the Hale-Bopp comet, the one nobody expected, fizzing across the western sky. We're suspended in jewels. Come what may, we'll always have our stars.

Anonymous said...

I heard they photographed an exploding star for the first time this month! Can you imagine!

Father Tony of the Farmboyz said...

You feel closer to God when you look at the stars.

I feel disappointment that they are out of my reach. Born of a time and place in which we haven't yet grown the wings for that voyage, I almost wish I couldn't see their thrilling beaconing. It's like getting a travel brochure in the mail advertising a destination you are not allowed to experience.

Greg said...

I love gazing out at it all, it's just so amazing. I haven't done it with binoculars, though--I'll give that a try.

There's nothing like lying on a blanket on the beach late at night, watching.