My wife and I spent the last 12 days traveling around the New Mexico desert. The experience of the sky…
My wife and I spent the last 12 days traveling around the New Mexico desert. The experience of the sky was spectacular, much better than Ohio has to offer.
Do not get me wrong. You can get a pretty decent view of the real heaven from southern Ohio if you are willing to travel to one of our wonderful state parks and forests. Therefore, I spent my observation time showing people the night’s delights from the new John Glenn Astronomy Park near the center of Hocking Hills State Park.
But New Mexico is something special because of its relative lack of light polluting cities and its different climate. We wandered over cleanest white plaster dunes, down spectacular cannons and even through what can almost be called forests, about weeds, high yucca plants and cacti can be called trees. We also went deep underground in the Carlsbad Caverns.
And the sky! I have never seen the shadow of azure in any other place. I have never seen a sunset so clean. And I’ve never seen so many stars clear to the horizon.
Urban attractions provide the best of what nature affords us, both above and below the horizon ̵
1; a real sense of detail of the minute on our planet and its place in the greater cosmos.
I was particularly impressed by the Chaco Canyon National Monument, which, like many of the National Parks and Monuments, requires its patrons to be outside the premises at sunset. When we hurriedly listened to the rules and rushed out of his sharp beauty in one of his most beautiful sunsets that I have ever seen, I was reminded of a story about the great John Dobson, inventor of the Dobsonian telescopic fighter and the astronomer.
Dobson loved to load his broken down, “retired” school bus with huge telescopes of his own creation. He traveled from the National Park to the National Park and showed people the true sky from outlook and parking.
Such after dark pleasures violated the rules. As a result, he was often told by rangers and sometimes he kicked out of the park.
On the Grand Canyon, a ranger sniffed: “Lord, heaven is not part of the park.”
Dobson answered calmly, “Mr., the park is a part of heaven.”
And, dear reader, is exactly right. One way to understand our place in the universe is to examine it carefully on its microcosmic scale, a device that we usually call “nature.”
But the part of nature under the horizon is just a small fragment of our larger natural world.
Do not stop there. After the sun has fallen, look over the horizon to find nature on its macroscosmic scale.
In other words, the best way to get a sense of humanity’s place in the universe is simply to go out and watch the sky in the fall. Of course, the universe is slightly dimmed by the light of light. Why not take a late afternoon out to the country to watch the sunset at the place where the earth and the sky meet and stay out until the universe appears in all its glory? Do not forget to bring binoculars or a small telescope for an even better view.
When the dusk turns dark, look up with the binoculars you were born with, your own two eyes. The western horizon shines with a strange, smashed band of silver candles. Summer Winter Street is in the west, but Miss does not. When the night goes on, the winter’s Milky Way will rise to the east.
You look at the distant stars in your own Winter Street galaxy, our cosmic neighborhood. The sun is just one of the 100 billion stars of the Milky Way, many of which are in the milky band you see. A simple set of binoculars is all that is required to make the band explode in innumerable stars.
We have shown that this is so little more than 400 years. For ever, we were limited by what the human eye would allow us to see.
The Milky Way is shaped like an Olympic diskus, broader in the middle and teep at its edges. This cosmic discus is 100,000 light years from side to side. (A light year is about 6 billion.) Turn on a flashlight at one end, and the light takes 100,000 years to get to the other side.
Turn on a flashlight and aim it toward the moon, and light takes a hair more than a second to go the distance there. Compare one second to 100,000 years and you begin to feel the huge size of the Milky Way.
We live near Milk’s edge. As we starve into it, the glow of innumerable stars and dust and cloud clouds glows our vision of the larger universe. To get a feel of the rest of the universe’s feelings, we must look away from the thickest part of Winter Street.
Even after dark, look high in the east for Constellation Andromeda, where only a thin veil of Milky Way comes in the way. Far beyond the stars of constellation, you will see a fuzzy, cigar-shaped stain of light called Andromeda Galaxy.
You look at the utmost things the human eye can see. Its great distance was apparent only a century or so ago. During all the millennia that came before, people stared at the little fuzzy patch and did not realize they had reached the limit of man.
Granted, with the invisible eye, the galaxy does not look much, but it will fill most binoculars. From our angle in Winter Street, Andromeda is tilted partly to its side and stands for its oval shape.
In maybe 200,000 light years, the galaxy is twice the size of our Milky Way. The astronomers’ latest estimates put Andromeda away in about 2.5 million years. The light you see took 2.5 million years to travel to your eyes. In the huge golf between the two could be placed at the end of the end 15 Andromeda galaxies and 30 Milk roads.
After all my decades of observing the universe, an easy fact leaves me an eye on oxygen: Andromeda is the closest galaxy to our Winter Street.
The universe consists of trillions of galaxies like Andromeda. If you spent a lifetime, hundreds of lifetimes staring through telescopes at every galaxy you can see, you would only see a small part of the galaxies that compose the universe. Each of these galaxies would be far more distant than the weak spot of light called the Andromeda Galaxy.
Stare up on these things only once in your life. Stare long enough and you will know the place of humanity in the universe.
Compared to the smallest star, you are a small, fragile creation. Your body is small, but your mind measures the universe as fast as thought. Perhaps you will know that you got eyes to see these things. You got a sense of sharing in the universe’s greatness.
People worry a lot about minutiae in their daily lives, as they should, I suppose. They worry more about where our nation and our world are heading, and I do not mean to weaken such concerns. In fact, I worry about all these things myself.
But a lifetime to watch the sky has led me to this now unchangeable conclusion: When people see – our miraculous space in the universe, the cosmos beauty and cold, our planet and our close presence on it, the strength and vulnerability of this matter we call life, and the power and powerlessness we have over the only planet we have ever called home, I know in my heart of the hearts that they – and you – will do the right thing.
Starning up at Andromeda Galaxy is a great place to start that journey.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.