The news feed on my phone is filled with headlines of comets and meteors and newly found galaxies and bursts of radio waves and so many other bits of information that it often seems the stuff of science fiction rather than straight up science. In addition, magazines normally associated with economics and politics are diving into astronomy and theoretical physics. Countless articles discuss the positions of the planets, the behavior of black holes and the latest piece of scientific equipment sent deep into space to report back on the sun or, perhaps, an asteroid. I’ve recently seen fantastic photos of Comet Neowise taken by amateur astronomers all over the world. Astronomy is booming. It’s no longer a fringe hobby.
Strangely though, while it appears that more folks than ever are taking an interest in these otherworldly events, I’m feeling like the guy who still wants to set the F-stop on his camera. Astronomy, for me, has never been about getting ahead of my imagination. Instead, I see it as a means to confirm my appreciation of awe, of finding majesty in the never-ending number and variety of celestial objects.
For example, exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the sun) fascinate me, but I’m easily lost by the science of how they’re found. I’m astounded by the genius of those who have this stuff figured out, but what drives my interest is the simple fact that with every planet comes the chance for more life. Stream of consciousness leads me to realize that humans are not nearly the most common species on our planet. Alien spaceships taking a look at us with equipment we can only dream of might surmise that chickens rule our roost since they overwhelmingly outnumber us. We wonder what life is like elsewhere, but we often fail to appreciate how incredibly diverse life is right here.
So, for the past few months I’ve set my sights a little lower and a little closer to home. Slowly, I’ve been putting together a very tiny observatory, a place to park a telescope, or a pair of binoculars and a chair or two. Nothing fancy. Nothing to draw attention from what it’s supposed to provide: a small sanctuary to admire the night sky, a place to escape to when the news is bad and, more importantly, a place to go to remember how easy it often is to experience a moment of awe by simply gazing upward.
Within each column of Starstruck I’ve tried to point to a specific object or event that can be observed and understood without expensive equipment or scientific study. I’ve tried to point to the work of astronomers in places like Mt. Hopkins who are looking outside our solar system to better understand our own sun and planets.
More than anything, though, the theme has been to acknowledge that stargazing takes no special skill or knowledge. Instead, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to see in a star all that we see in a new baby, backyard astronomy can be an exercise with huge rewards at minimal expense.
Coaches tell their athletes to let the game, whatever it is, come to them. It’s the same with astronomy. I usually don’t look for something specific in the sky. If something stands out on a particular day at a particular moment I’ll spend some time looking at it and will follow that up with a google search.
So, this month, no suggestions from me. If the monsoon clouds aren’t too widespread and allow for even a little bit of clearing, just spend a few moments looking up at the night sky. What’s special right now to look at? Everything.