Where are we going?
Out to meet the universe – sort of like the pilgrim on the right whose cosmology is medieval, but whose goal is still current. I hope this site will help you meet and establish a comfortable, friendly relationship with the night sky and through it a more meaningful connection to our incredible universe. We are children of the stars, yet I think many of us have lost sight of this singular, profound fact. We see little or no link between us and the rest of the universe in part because we have no experiential knowledge of the night sky. The goal of this site is to help you gain that experiential knowledge and thus make that connection. Sound too grand?
OK. Simply put, here’s how I hope this site will help you:
- When you have used this site for a year you should be able to find and name at least 15 of the brightest “guidepost” stars in our sky, and they should be well on their way to becoming old friends.
- You should be aware of the great journey we are all on together in our Space Station Earth and how and why our window on the universe gives us a constantly changing, yet familiar, view – familiar because certain patterns repeat on a nightly, monthly, or yearly basis.
- You should be able to locate the bright planets known to the ancients, and have a grasp of not only the changing face of the moon in our sky, but of the complex dance it weaves with us as we both travel around the Sun.
- And you should be able to locate examples of many of the major wonders revealed to us by the Hubble Space Telescope. No, you cannot see these objects in the stunning color and detail that Hubble images reveal. But those are just images. They carry their own special reality as such. But multi-dimensional, real-life encounters have their own unique value. So a major goal here is help you create a dance that brings into a synchronized partnership the two-dimensional images and abstract knowledge delivered by modern science and technology, with the experiential knowledge of the universe open to any of us who can step out under a dark sky with nothing more than our eyes and ordinary binoculars. Marrying these two forms of knowing results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
A word about telescopes
They’re great fun. They’re not necessary.
I would never discourage anyone from getting a telescope – I have several and use them frequently – but I also think they aren’t the key to making a connection with the night sky. So If you have one, great. If you plan to purchase one, great. I’ll suggest some good targets each month. But the emphasis here will be on the experience you can have with the naked eye and with ordinary binoculars. It’s up to you whether you want to add to that experience with telescopes. I only suggest that you don’t let the technology – any technology – get in your way. The key is to see it as a tool, not an end in itself. I feel the same way about computers – great technology for helping us interact – but the key remains in what we think, say, and do – not the technology that conveys it.
The longer I’ve watched the night sky, the more I’ve learned, the more I have appreciated how much can be seen with the unaided eye, and how much more with informed use of common, inexpensive binoculars. I gaze into the night sky now and with my mind’s eye see far more than stars – it feels more like I’m looking at one of the jungle scenes painted by Henri Rousseau where only careful observation reveals the wonders – wonders that are obvious, yet hidden to the casual glance.
If you know where and when to look in the night sky, you can detect the Andromeda Galaxy with the unaided eye, even though it is some two and half million light years away! Using a pair of cheap, very small binoculars, such as 7X20, it’s much easier to see the Andromeda Galaxy and several star clusters and a nebula or two. Easier – but not easy. Use large, but still common binoculars – traditional 7X35 or 7X50 or in that range, and there are enough galaxies, star clusters and nebulae that are detectable to you to have some real idea of what’s out there. Even a very modest telescope does much better – but there’s a price to pay, not only in money, but in complexity. It takes no real effort to step out under the night sky, having grabbed a pair of binoculars as you put on your coat. Setting up a telescope – even the simplest – can involve enough additional fooling around to cause you to return to the couch and the boob tube. So if you’re beginning, be patient. Keep it simple. See yourself as building a long-term relationship. And if you have a telescope – enjoy it. But don’t let it ever bog you down. If the hassle of setting it up stops you from going out some night, it’s doing more harm than good. Just go out without it. But go out!
Bottom line – you can build a rewarding relationship with the night sky without ever investing in optical instruments. You can even do so from our light-polluted suburban skies – though getting away to the dark countryside can enhance your experience and widen your opportunities. None of this is difficult, none of it requires special pre-knowledge of math and science. And none of the math or science we will use goes beyond what you encountered before reaching high school. It just requires time and effort. The trick is not in the knowing, not in the reading, but in the doing. And this site is definitely about doing. It is not about abstract knowledge, though there will be plenty of that here, but about helping you gain experiential knowledge.
In the final analysis we are seeking that which we can’t express, and when we find it we will know we’re there, but we won’t know how to describe it, though we should try for the sake of ourselves and others. Now, before this starts sounding like some mystic vision, let me make it clear that my feet are planted firmly in the realm of reason and science. My guide is one of the greatest of all physical scientists, Albert Einstein. My most fundamental goal comes from him and is simple:
I want to stand rapt in awe.
Einstein said it this way:
He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.
Now that’s as fundamental as it gets. Two choices: Be rapt in awe or be dead. Shall you go through life with your eyes closed? Or shall you pause to wonder? You know my choice. It is a simple one about simple things and the wonder in them all. I’m amazed there is something rather than nothing. And I am in awe that you and I have the capacity to be aware of it. We are, in a very real way, the universe becoming aware of itself. We don’t need the mind or learning of an Einstein to grasp this. We do need the patience, the doing, and the deep awareness that I find best expressed by another of my heroes, the poet Robert Frost, who wrote in this most deceptively simple of poems:
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait, to watch the water clear, I may)
I shan’t be gone long, – You come too.
I’m gong out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long – you come too.
So it is with this web site, I offer you a simple invitation to encounter the indescribable.
I’m only going out to meet the stars – you come too.