29 Dec 2008
Over the years I have often heard people comment about how much they are interested in the glorious heavens, or how pretty the cosmos is, or how things like comets and supernovae and galaxies seem to pique their curiosities. But that's it. They go no further in any quest to find out more. Most often it is because they are too busy or are intimidated by the high level of thinking supposedly required to "get into it."
Well, that all has to stop. Investing even a small amount of time at the simplest levels of astronomy will help one begin to understand the cosmos and seed answers to the great questions of why we are here and where we are going.
Since this is the season that we celebrate the coming of a new year, and often resolve to change something in that coming year, I thought it might suit us all well to commit to trying a few astronomical things this year; simple things to help one get going in an investigation into the workings of the universe. Here are a few ideas.
Idea #1: Get thee to a star party. There are astronomy clubs willing to let you attend one of their evening gatherings of star gazing which are often open to the public. Let a "backyard astronomer" - a person without a Ph.D. but who often knows the skies better than one who has one - show you the skies. The Moon, the planets, nebulae, star clusters are all out there for the taking. Take a trip through the skies with them.
Idea #2: Resolve this year to look through a telescope. Probably someone you know owns one. Of course, a star party is filled with them. And telescope stores like Oceanside Photo and Telescope often have them set up in front. Take your family out and take a look; it's addicting.
Idea #3: Subscribe for just a year to a magazine like Sky and Telescope or Astronomy. More and more, these image-filled magazines are catering to the layman in all things heavenly. And after a year you will be "in the loop" regarding the latest in astronomical hot topics.
Idea #4: Latch on to one of those astronomy calendars. Inside you will not just find great pictures, but dates marking important events throughout the year, like meteor showers and planetary alignments.
Idea #5: Check out sites like hubblesite.org and Astronomy Picture of the Day. Websites like these are more than jaw-dropping eye candy. They also explain what those intriguing images are all about, and help get the curiosity juices a-flowin'.
Those are just five quick suggestions for how you can start wading deeper into this amazing world of astronomy. There are plenty more. Start wherever you will - but start.
Until next time, clear skies - and the happiest of new years!
15 Dec 2008
The days are getting shorter. It is darker longer. The daytime shadows are long and harsh. That sun always seems to be in our eyes lately. The weather is cooler and waxing worse. Bah humbug!
Yes, it's all a little irritating, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I know the solstice is upon us and things will be better.
The winter solstice, which arrives on the 21st of December, is not just a human calendar event. It is an astronomical one first.
Our planet and its orbit are oriented to the sun in such a way that allows us our annual spectrum of seasons. Regular readers here will remember that when we are tilted most towards the sun we have the summer solstice. Daytimes are longest, the sun rises highest in the sky and there is a warming trend in the weather.
The equinoxes - both spring and fall - are when we are tilted neither away nor towards the sun. There is equal daytime from pole to shining pole.
But after September when we in the northern hemisphere are beginning to tilt away from the sun - when the sun rises and sets farther south, stays up for shorter periods of time, and never gets too high in the sky - it is then that things change for us both in the physical realm of nature and in our human experience.
Most people in the northern hemisphere experience a change in weather. It is colder, darker, and the weather often goes "bad." Our life-giving sun is giving us the impression that it is about to leave and not come back.
You can imagine what ancient peoples thought about this threat of a departing sun. Not knowing that the sun was a ball of hydrogen and helium but fully aware of the role it played in life, there evolved rituals at this time of the year either imploring the sun to return or celebrating the fact that it would.
Solstice, which loosely translates as "the sun as stopped," happens at just the right time for us, before the sun gets too close to the horizon. After that date, the sun begins to rise again higher in the sky each day, the lands begin to warm again, the light lasts longer.
My hope is that this solstice season is a reminder to all of us who fear the dark, and feel our situation at the moment is bleak and hopeless. It won't keep getting darker, the life-giving sun is coming back!