Stargazing

I had a quite awesome ride this evening on my mountain bike. I ride almost every night after work, but this ride seemed almost transcendental for some reason – I can’t explain the feeling exactly, but maybe you’ll get it. The air was crisp and perfectly still after a rain, and the clouds had parted to reveal a gorgeous star-lit sky. The constellations were in excellent position for the ride home, like they were arranged somehow by hand. The Pleadies and Taurus were almost directly overhead, followed by a very bright Orion and Canis Major directly in front of me. Sirius shined almost perfectly over the trail, and I could almost see a faint glow from the brightness of the star cast on the road like moonglow. Just to the left were the Cassiopeia constellation and what looked like Jupiter. I haven’t kept track of any orbits in maybe 10 years, so it might as well have been Saturn or Mars, but my hunch stands on calling it Jupiter for now.

This all made me recall how I first became interested in astronomy in the first place. I remember one evening when I was maybe 12 or 13, looking up at what I would later find out was the Sword in Orion’s Belt, and noticing that something was odd about one of the stars in there. It looked fuzzy, and my first thought was that my eyes were getting screwy. So I borrowed my aunt’s field binoculars to see if I could get a better look. Well that made it look even fuzzier, but at least I proved to myself that the other stars still looked nice and crisp while this one looked like somebody stuck their thumb on the canvas. I would always keep an eye on that thing when I could at night, and left it at that for a while until I was given a rather decent telescope a year or two later as a birthday present from my grandmother. Well the first thing I did was go out and try to find that star, and when I trained the 4.5″ Newtonian reflector on it, I was absolutely amazed at what I was seeing. It was a whole freakin’ cloud of what looked like glowing smoke and clusters of stars all over the place. The thing looked like it was moving. It was the Great Nebula in Orion, M42, and I felt like freakin’ Galileo. So my whole thing from then on was like, “So what the hell else is up there?” Some question, indeed…

Later on I would find myself spending night after night looking through the telescope. I found a nice star chart made of heavy card stock and bound loosely so it would fold well, and a red penlight so I wouldn’t ruin my night vision. I’d take that thing everywhere, anywhere there was a dark sky; from my backyard or the foothills of Mt. Diablo to the hills north of Cloverdale, the Mendocino Coast, and the Rouge River Valley in southern Oregon. I was intent on accomplishing two things: 1. finding objects with nothing more than a finder scope and a newtonian tripod mount, and 2, finding out what the heck it was and what made it tick. I went through most of the easier Messier objects, a few galaxies and globular clusters, several nebula, a comet, and all the planets from Mercury to Neptune. Spotting Uranus and Neptune was tricky, but I think I caught their positions.

I sucked up every book I could on the subject, from Asimov’s Tragedy of the Moon to Hawking’s Brief History of Time. My favorite research project was in my college statistics class, where my buddy and I decided to to a statistical analysis on correlation between star color and age. I will never forget staying up all night typing it out and cutting and pasting illustrations into the final document the night before it was due with no sleep and the pure power of Jolt Cola. That and my American History final essay on the Challenger ripping apart were perhaps my two best pieces of work in college before switching to the music major. I had subscriptions to Astronomy Magazine and Sky and Telescope, and would scan them for whatever was the hot event that month: comet appearances, planetary alignments, stars passing between the craters of the dark side of the moon, whatever…

I think I’m writing this down now so that I don’t forget for myself how cool all this crap really is. I used to have this ridiculous daily routine: Ride the mountain bike first thing in the morning, practice the double bass all day, look at the sky at night. Rinse, lather, and repeat. That was a lot of fun…