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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.


Do I need a telescope to learn the night sky?

No! You can do a lot of enjoyable observing with the unaided eye. Binoculars – any binoculars – will add to your enjoyment, however, as will a telescope. But the primary focus of this Web site is to help you become familiar with the night sky – the Moon, planets, and brightest stars – and this can be accomplished with the unaided eye. Under dark skies in the country with normal eyesight, you can even find a galaxy, two and a half million light years away, using nothing but your unaided eye.

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I live in the city – am I doomed by light pollution?

Light pollution will certainly limit you, but even in urban areas if you can go to a park – get away from the worst direct pollution – you should be able to see the Moon, bright planets, and the brightest stars – and it is these bright stars that are your “guideposts” for finding everything else. Obviously it is better in the suburbs, and you will see much more if you can get to a rural observing site. But even from the city you can develop a real sense of the universe around you.

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The Pleiades open star cluster as it appears in binoculars.

The Pleiades open star cluster as it appears in binoculars.

Why do you call it “prime time?”

Partly it’s my way of thumbing my nose at commercial television – but mostly I figure any time spent outside under the stars is “prime.” After all, you are getting out of your little day-to-day world and opening your eyes, mind, and heart to the universe.

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Yes, but exactly what time is “prime?”

Generally, the early evening when most people are free and not too tired and it is truly dark. But you can’t put a clock time to it – you need to follow the Sun and your own needs. For the person learning the sky, prime time begins about 30-45 minutes after sunset. That’s when the brightest stars – the ones we’re trying to learn first, appear. For observing most stars and fainter objects, we want it to be as dark as possible, and generally that means waiting between 90 minutes and two hours after sunset. (See: Step 1: When do we Observe)

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Many telescopes are computerized these days, and I even can buy a computerized device that will identify for me just about anything I point it at in the night sky. Why do I need to learn all this stuff?

You don’t. Life is loaded with shortcuts, but sometimes the long road is better. In this case I think it definitely is, for in learning where things are, you also learn how they move, and you gain an intuitive sense of your place in the universe. That kind of uncommon sense won’t come from a computer. And do you really think we shouldn’t bother to learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide just because we have calculators? I have owned several computerized telescopes and enjoyed using them, but recently I have sold them all and am using only manual scopes. I find that more fun, and it keeps me involved and alert when observing. However, I have nothing against computer-driven scopes – they’re just not for me.

With all these gorgeous photographs from Hubble and other modern instruments, why bother to go out in the night for a view that even with the best amateur telescopes show us a tiny gray ghost of what the Hubble reveals?

Why go to a baseball game? A play? A concert? Any live performance? Because it is real. Because we don’t live in just the two dimensions of a photograph; we live in three dimensions and more. Because when we look up and see a star we are physically interacting – connecting – with the energy from that star. And because the best of cameras still don’t do justice to many objects, such as star clusters, where the wide range of light intensities can be sensed by the eye, but not by our instruments. In fact, brightness is a dimension in itself. The photograph represents a brighter star by a larger circle of light, but our eyes reveal the brighter star as a greater intensity of light. For me, seeing a photograph is like reading a musical score – it represents the notes, but there is no sound. I love science, but sometimes we draw the life out of things by becoming immersed in symbol manipulation. Walt Whitman captured it all nicely when he wrote:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and
measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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Who the heck is Galileo de Mouse?

driftway_signMy personal observing is frequently done in the early morning hours in my tiny, domed observatory – a small garden shed, really, and quite accessible to small visitors – such as field mice. I’ve seen them sometimes, and I really expect to turn around some, dark cold morning, and find one perched on the edge of my cup, sipping my hot tea! I said this to my daughter, and it inspired her to create Galileo de Mouse as part of a sign she made for the observatory. For me he’s become a reminder to lighten up when I talk to visitors, since Galileo de Mouse looks a bit too officious and scholarly. Like the owls and other characters you see on these pages, he’s also a reminder that we’re all part of a vast, interconnected web that links the very small with the very large. We’re perched somewhere in the middle.

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