I have a prized handwritten, original letter from Aldous Huxley, in which he mentions that “Gratitude is heaven itself.” There’s truth there, and the topic is of course appropriate now, since Thanksgiving is coming.
Most of us have a lot to be thankful for. Every five years or so I try to tie this theme into the larger universe, so I’m due. It would be nice (novel, anyway) to hold a star party on Thanksgiving, where astronomers rattle off their own special reasons to be grateful. I’ll go first.
For starters, I am thankful that, at star parties, nobody plays music through loudspeakers. I know that it’s tempting to provide background ambience. Lots of people think that Bach, say, would be appropriate while gazing at nebulae, and our culture already regards silence with suspicion. We have music nearly everywhere else: elevators, malls, even at planetariums while people file in. The problem, of course, is different tastes. I’m not so sure that Neptune would be improved by a hip-hop soundtrack.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, many tried matching planets with various sequencing schemes such as numerology, geometric shapes or musical notes. It was part of our never-ending effort to link the cosmos with arbitrary human ideas. Rigidly structured music doesn’t really fit the infinitude of space. Electronic or meditation music does better, because it’s more free-flowing. But hey, outer space is silent. What’s good enough for Orion is good enough for me.
Of course, an observing session is not silent. There are the muttering and periodic yelps that accompany dropped eyepieces and stubbed toes. Astronomy seems specifically designed for injury, what with the dark environment and equipment lying around.
And speaking of darkness, we can be thankful that the public is slowly gaining awareness of light pollution. No one likes glaring lights, and some towns like Woodstock have ordinances forbidding excessive sideways illumination spilling across property lines. Nonetheless, you’ll occasionally see an oblivious person install a harsh wraparound “yard light” instead of a more eco-friendly motion-controlled spot. By keeping his yard light on all night – especially if you’re trying to observe a faint celestial wonder like the Milky Way – your neighbor deserves to serve an indefinite term at a special brightly lit prison.
Dealing with such people gives backyard astronomers a high tolerance for lesser crimes and frailties. No longer will you roll your eyes the next time someone says, “You’re an astronomer? What’s your sign?” No longer do you get perturbed when taxed to build spacecraft designed to explode upon reaching orbit.
Anyway, many celestial phenomena do indeed merit gratitude:
That the Moon and Sun both appear the same size (true of no other planet), which allows total eclipses to occur in our lifetimes. Eventually, the spiraling-away Moon, departing at the rate of 1.5 inches a year, will no longer appear large enough to cover up the Sun.
That astronauts do not make political speeches every time they reach orbit.
That the Moon has a nice stable orbit, rather than being like the Martian satellite Phobos: the lowest-orbiting moon in the known universe. Opposite to our Moon, Phobos is falling inward, and may crash onto Mars in only about ten million years. If colonists live there then, the irony of Phobos’ meaning (“fear”) is unlikely to go unnoticed.
That Earth doesn’t orbit a star like Betelgeuse – not just because that name means “sheep’s armpit,” but also because it’s likely to explode before too long, which would make everyone neurotic and insecure, unlike the well-adjusted citizens of Earth.
Comet ISON Update 11/16:
As my astronomy group here in South America has just observed, Comet ISON continues to underachieve, and was only magnitude 7.5 as of the 13th. Still, it may become worthwhile the first week of December. Look low in the east 30 to 40 minutes before sunrise, after going to a place with a very unobstructed eastern horizon. In a previous column, I said to look for it after sunset; ignore that. That will be true later in December.
comet ISON update 11/20:
The comet has now brightened to 5th magnitude, which normally would be visible to the naked eye away from city lights. But the moon continues to interfere, and the comet is very low in the pre-dawn eastern sky. Those interested can use binoculars and look in the east, below the star Spica at 5:30 a.m. Seek a small blob.
Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.