Death-Defying Acts of Astronomy!

Hey, Sky Fans!

If you’ve been following and reading along enough over the last couple of years, it’s been subtle, but we’ve been through a bunch of things together. Planetary conjunctions, occultations, eclipses– both solar and lunar, you name it. A lot. If there’s anything I love, at least as far as astronomy goes, it’s talking about it with other people, explaining as we go. Maybe one day, these writing and planetarium-talking dreams will get us all to some even newer places. Either way, I’m glad we’ve been taking this ride together all this time. Thank you.

Lately, though, the words have kind of dried up. Between family obligations, good and… let’s go with less good, exhaustion from the news, a new job not doing astronomy stuff, and generally miscellaneous et cetera, it’s been hard to find the time and be awake enough all at once to do it. Feh, as my grandfather would say through his mustache and thick Brooklyn brogue.

This past weekend, though, my town asked me to do another talk about the skies, and about light pollution. I’ve been wanting to talk more about this really important topic since I started reading and learning more and more about it. I was really happy to be able to give a talk in May. That talk started a small initiative to get interested people together to see if we can make some change happen. I was amazed by the response.

Plus, light pollution or not, it was a chance to take people away from the news, away from the pessimism, away from their lives a bit, and just do something simple, honest, a little unusual, fun… and free. Let’s look up, I say. Let’s track down all the naked eye planets and a few summer constellations!

So, the plan was a sky show on Saturday in a dark corner of a darkened field in a big open park where kids usually play soccer on weekend days. As the kids leave, the kites come out, swooped up and carried high into the air by breezes off the river. My needlessly bright town has plenty of light pollution problems, but I was hopeful, and I got some enormous help from some great people.

Storms were in the forecast, but I could still see Jupiter high to the south and a young crescent setting when it was time to leave, so I decided to head out and give it a try. By the time I got there, the skies were flat. It was, to put it mildly, very strange standing alone in the middle of an open, mosquitoey field on a Saturday night as a thick overcast filled in overhead, and lightning flashed off in the distance; near enough to see, but too far to hear the thunder.

Little by little, though, “Are you Scott?” as figures appeared through the shadows. Before long, a small crowd had gathered, a couple of people I already knew, and a bunch I didn’t.

If you want optimism, here it is:

People came from all around town to look at the skies on what they knew was an overcast night. By the time our talk was scheduled to start, there were 15, maybe 20 of us, standing in a circle, under flat, blank skies, talking about what we couldn’t see. All of the kids, probably another half dozen or so, were girls, all of them.

Girls brought out by their parents to learn some science, some STEM, in the middle of a park late on a Saturday night in July. This is a very important topic to me, so I was thrilled.

The Moon July 16, 2018 (Not the Night of this Story)
The Moon July 16, 2018, Not the Night of this Story

And, so, we stood there, fireflies flittering and mosquitoes attacking, and talked.

I showed them where the planets would be if we could have seen them. I told them how they could find their way home using only the Big Dipper. We talked about the Moon, about Jupiter’s moons, about Mars’s opposition.

A star show with no stars.

And then one star, one star,  Arcturus, poked through the clouds, and we all stood in  the middle of that field and cheered.

For that half hour, there was no terrible news, no one was sick, no one was worried, and we had Arcturus.

As the winds kicked up, thunder rumbled overhead, and we decided it was time to go. In the seven minutes or so it took me to get home, rain came down in sheets, the thunder went from cracks to crashes, and I even heard a rumor that the lightning brought down a big old tree near the park. Between the mosquitoes and the lightning, the escapes were narrow.

It was great, energizing and inspiring to be a part of, and was easily one of the best experiences of this whole astronomy thing I’ve been pushing myself toward.

If you have any interest at all in doing this sort of thing, please, ask around your town. Reach out. If you need some advice, I’m happy to give it. If I can put it together, I’ll write up a how-to in the next couple of weeks.

Trust me, people are interested. Interested in astronomy, in dark skies, in fighting light pollution. Interested in making the world just a little better,  if only a half hour at a time. If I can do it, so can you.

And maybe, you’ll have Arcturus, too.

Thanks for stopping by, and clear skies!





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