Keep Looking Up

Sky Lights.

I missed the recent auroras that lit up the sky even down here in Tennessee. My wife and I drove up to a hill where on a couple of occasions we’ve gone to watch the International Space Station zip across the sky at twenty-eight thousand kilometers an hour, just a tiny dot crossing from one horizon to the other, but the combination of light pollution and a high horizon and maybe even just bad timing meant we didn’t see the auroras. And it wasn’t until later that a friend had invited us to come see the auroras at her farm, well away from the city, with a very dark sky, though she’s also surrounded by trees so I don’t know if the visibility was any better there.

And maybe one of these days I’ll have another chance to see the auroras. Maybe I’ll get a chance to travel north—of course I’m happy to travel anywhere. One of the jokes my friends say about me is if someone offered me a chance to fly to Paramaribo right now the plane would be halfway over the Gulf Of Mexico before I’d think to ask, “So, wait, why is it we’re going? And did I pack my toothbrush?” Paramaribo gets picked because it seems like a random place—it could just as easily be Poughkeepsie—but also Suriname doesn’t seem to even make the top ten on most people’s desired travel destinations, even though it sounds like a really cool place with an amazing history, but that’s another story.

I missed the auroras this time but they will also come again. Even if I didn’t see them they reminded me that the Earth keeps spinning around the Sun, that our little planet isn’t a closed sphere but it’s part of, and affected by, the universe we occupy. We live small, brief lives on a world that’s constantly in motion, constantly changing. I couldn’t see the auroras but up in the sky there was a slender crescent moon, like a chalice without a handle cupping a few stars, and I was reminded of the beginning of the Wallace Stevens poem The Auroras Of Autumn:

This is where the serpent lives, the bodiless.
His head is air. Beneath his tip at night
Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.

Or is this another wriggling out of the egg,
Another image at the end of the cave,
Another bodiless for the body’s slough?

This is where the serpent lives. This is his nest,
These fields, these hills, these tinted distances,
And the pines above and along and beside the sea.

This is form gulping after formlessness,
Skin flashing to wished-for disappearances
And the serpent body flashing without the skin.

This is the height emerging and its base
These lights may finally attain a pole
In the midmost midnight and find the serpent there,

In another nest, the master of the maze
Of body and air and forms and images,
Relentlessly in possession of happiness.  

Everything Under The Sun.

Everything under the sun is in tune but the sun is eclipsed by the Moon. And was in 2017.

The eclipse sweeping over North America today is being described as “rare”, mostly, I think, by people who’ve forgotten that there was one just seven years ago. And I can think of two others that happened where I lived, although they were pretty long ago. One was when I was in second grade, though Tennessee wasn’t in the path of totality, and it was cloudy that morning so those of us who brought our shoebox viewers didn’t get to use them. The other was late in the spring when I was in seventh grade, and late in the afternoon, too, on a very clear day. Again we weren’t in the path of totality but it was a partial eclipse. My friends and I walked home through backyards and vacant lots that had become so familiar to us but suddenly seemed strange in the bluish light of the eclipse. We gathered around a puddle and, in just the right position, could see the disk of the sun with a great round piece cut out of one side. And then it passed.

It really depends on how you define “rare”, of course. In just the next six years there will be fifteen more solar eclipses, and just as many lunar eclipses, although whether they’ll be visible all depends on where you are in the world.

I do think eclipses are amazing things even if, in astronomical terms, they’re not that unusual, at least for us on Earth, which is unusual in being the only rocky planet in the inner solar system to have a large moon. For the one in 2017 my wife and I drove about an hour east to get a few extra minutes of totality, and for this one we’ll be driving about an hour west, though not far enough for full totality, and it looks like it’ll be cloudy anyway.

The important thing for me about an eclipse is that it’s a reminder that we’re in a universe that’s constantly in motion: the planet we’re on spins, the moon orbits around it, it orbits the sun along with a cluster of other planets, and we’re on a merry-go-round ride in an outer arm of a galaxy that’s also moving through space. An eclipse is one of those events that causes me to stop and consider our place in the vast universe—something I only do rarely.

Where Are We?

The first time someone ever showed me a smartphone one of the apps on it was a compass. I said that was really cool and asked how well it worked if you were out in the wilderness where there was no cell service or wifi.

“Oh, it won’t work if you don’t have wifi,” he said. That made it seem a lot less cool because the time you need a compass the most is when you’re out in the wilderness somewhere far from any technology. Maybe something’s changed since then, or maybe the iPhone has always had an interior gyroscope and he didn’t know that, but the iPhone compass will work anywhere. There are also lots of astronomy apps that will identify the stars above you, around you, even below you–sometimes I point my tablet at the floor just to see what’s on the far side of the Earth. And now someone has written an app that will point you to the center of our galaxy. I think so, anyway–because I can’t really see the center of the galaxy, in spite of it being really, really, really big. From where I am it points roughly west–although direction is kind of meaningless because of the distance.

The app is a little weird, too, in that it has to be resting flat to show me where the center of the galaxy is. It’s a little like a real compass in that regard, which is why I once had an assistant Scoutmaster tell me that compasses don’t work when you’re on a hill. He was a bonehead, of course, but fortunately there was another Scoutmaster who knew how to read a compass.

I do think it’s really interesting to have something that gives a sense of where we are in our own extremely large galaxy, which leads to thoughts about how many other galaxies there are out there. The universe we live in is a very, very, very big place, and we are so extremely small.

Just for a little added perspective I pointed the SkyView app on my phone in the direction of the center of the universe and clustered in the southwest, just about the horizon, were Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Pluto. All so distant but, in comparison, they seemed so close.


Night Birds.

The barred owl was back last night, calling out under the almost full and brightly ringed moon. A couple of weeks ago I was taking the garbage out in the dark, because of course that’s the best possible time to carry an overstuffed twenty-pound plastic bag around the patio, down a set of steps, behind the car, and under the deck where there’s no light at all. I heard the barred owl’s distinctive call, “who cooks for you? who cooks for you?” from the southeast, where there’s still a pretty heavily wooded area between houses. I stopped to see if another one would answer. We sometimes also hear great horned owls and my wife can hoot back at them and get them to respond, once even convincing one to move closer. I can’t tell if the owl knew it was talking to a person and thought it was funny or whether it was fooled and ultimately disappointed when the owl it thought it was talking to vanished.

In classical mythology owls are a symbol of wisdom, associated with Athena, although I think corvids rank higher on the scale of bird intelligence. Other cultures see owls as bad omens, though—they fly silently in the darkness and swoop down on prey, and they have those large, rounded heads. As with all anthropomorphizing, though, I think it says more about us than it does the animals themselves. They’re just trying to get through the night, take down a few mice, and cough up the bones and fur, which is a pretty efficient way to eat. Imagine being able to swallow a chicken whole and have your stomach strip away all the good parts so you could hack up the feathers and bones in a compact mass about half an hour later. It would make dining out a lot more interesting.

I’m not sure what the fact that I’m thinking about this says about me.

I was happy it was a barred owl and not a barn owl, which I know are around here and are very distinctive, I’d even say handsome, even among owls, but they make a sound like someone being murdered. And then there are screech owls, which I have heard around here. Their call sounds like the laugh of an evil clown hiding in the trees waiting to eat children, although you have to respect the evil clowns for swallowing them whole then about half an hour later hacking up all the bones in a compact mass inside the backpack.

After the barred owl my favorite experience is the night I was home alone and I kept hearing a repeating bass sound, like someone playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida just outside the window. Finally I went outside to investigate, because of course when I hear a weird noise the best thing to do is go and wander around in the dark to see what’s causing it. We have a big shagbark hickory tree right outside the den window, and silhouetted against the night sky I could see a great horned owl sitting there.

We stared at each other for several minutes, then I went back inside. It seemed like the wise thing to do.

Ring In, Ring Out.

Source: SkyView app

Right now I can walk out into the driveway in the evenings and, if the sky is clear, I can see Saturn, even with the holiday lights and street lights. It’s bright and distinctive and, depending on the time, is even above the treetops in the constellation Aquarius. If I take my telescope out I can just see the rings. Maybe that’s why I’ve been getting dire “warnings” that Saturn’s rings will “disappear” in 2025. They’re not disappearing—at least not yet. Saturn tilts from our perspective and sometimes the title means the edge of the very thin rings is toward us. It’s something Galileo noticed: at first he thought the rings were two big planets on either side of Saturn and then when he went back two years later and looked they were gone. Then they came back. And they’ll come back after 2025 too.

Except eventually they won’t. Saturn’s rings, held in place by shepherd moons and gravity, are being absorbed into the planet. Eventually they’ll vanish entirely. It’ll take a few hundred million years so it’s unlikely any of us will be around but still, without its rings, Saturn loses something. It becomes just another gas giant.

Saturn in mythology was also the god of time—the Roman equivalent of Greek Cronos, who had a wild December celebration.

It seemed oddly fitting that I could look down the driveway on a cold night, wondering where the year went, and see Saturn just above the bare, skeletal trees. Nothing is permanent. The only constant is change. Before long it’ll be time to ring in the new year.

I’m Not Sirius.

This is Sabik.

We’re into the Dog Days of August now with Canis Major just slightly ahead of sunrise, and it’s also the hottest time of summer when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noontime sun, if you believe Noel Coward, and it’s also when I go out, usually to get the mail, although I’m neither a mad dog nor an Englishman though I was once spotted drinking a Pina Colada at Trader Vic’s, but that’s another story.

The Dog Days always remind me of something I once read in a book of folk beliefs: some people thought snakes went blind during the hottest part of summer. It’s one of those beliefs that can be reverse-engineered so that it actually makes sense even if it’s not true. Snakes get milky-eyed when they’re about to shed their skins and the end of a long summer of getting fat is when they’d be most likely to do that. So people probably found snakes with what looked like opaque eyes and might have thought the heat, or going out in the noontime sun, is what did it.

Sirius is the Dog Star, located in the constellation Canis Major, and the brightest star in the sky after the Sun, which makes it so distinctive, but it’s funny to me that, by sheer coincidence, my wife named one of our dogs Sabik, after a star in the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer, which, right now, is visible after sunset in the south—about where we’ll be able to see Canis Major in a few months when the weather starts to get colder. I know the snake-dog connection is really stretching it but the thing is if you reverse-engineer the connect-the-dot design of the constellations it’s only with our imaginations that we see dogs, bears, people, and even centaurs and unicorns in the night sky. Given how easily the eye moves from one star to the next, drawing lines, it’s amazing all the constellations aren’t snakes.

And anyway it’s amazing I can think enough to make any kind of connections given how hot it is and the fact that I’ve been out in the noonday sun.

I also found this cool interactive sky chart which helped me confirm all the constellations:

Looking Up.


Source: Wikipedia

Wishing on a star is one of those ancient traditions that probably sprung up in multiple cultures over time. The same goes for wishing on the first star spotted in the evening–the author of “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might have the wish I wish tonight” is anonymous and it seems like such a simple, straightforward combination of rhymes it seems possible it was coined by more than one person even without any of them knowing each other. Then there’s Jiminy Cricket who sang “When You Wish Upon A Star” in the Disney version of Pinocchio. I prefer Collodi’s original in which he’s merely a talking cricket who warns Pinocchio not to be lazy, gets smashed with a hammer, and comes back as a ghost, but that’s another story.

Wishing on a falling star seems like it would be even luckier, since they’re rarer, but I think it must also be lucky to wish on a planet. Jupiter and Venus shine more brightly than any star in the night sky and, being closer, seem more likely to grant a wish, or at least have some influence over our world, even if it’s only an occasional gravitational nudge or errant burst of radiation.

These are all thoughts that ran through my head the other night when, looking roughly north by northeast, I saw the first star of the evening, which just happened to be Arcturus. Of course it was Arcturus. It’s the brightest star, with the exception of the sun, visible in the northern hemisphere. It’s just under thirty-seven light years away which makes it a pretty close neighbor. That, combined with being a red giant, is what makes it so bright. It also might have a planetary system.

Could there be life around Arcturus? Let’s say yes. This isn’t science fiction so much as science speculation. We haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe yet but there are a lot of places we haven’t looked, and given the size of the universe it would be strange if our little planet really is alone. Still Arcturus isn’t exactly the best candidate. It’s at least a couple of billion years older than our sun, not to mention the fact that it’s a very different kind of star, all of which means whatever life is out there is likely very different from anything we’re used to. And even if we can communicate the distance means just exchanging a couple of friendly hellos would take almost seventy-four years. A lot can happen in that time.

I’m sure I saw Arcturus a lot when I was a kid. Thinking back to all the summer nights I checked the sky, and assuming it was in roughly the same position then, which it probably was since the stars are pretty regular, it’s very likely that first bright star I saw at night that managed to not be obscured by the streetlight at the end of our cul-de-sac. Arcturus could shine even through light pollution.

And that’s why I see it so often now. It’s annoying, really, that I’ll see a bright star in the evening sky and, checking an astronomy app, I’ll confirm that it’s Arcturus. Again. And I’ll think how nice it would be if it could move over and let something else shine, The next morning I went out and in roughly the same position, bright enough to be seen in the early dawn sky, was Jupiter.

Wish granted.

Size Matters.

Asteroid 7335 (1989 JA), which made its closest pass by the Earth on May 27, 2022, has been described as being “the size of 350 giraffes”.


Asteroid 2017 VL2 which came within 70,000 miles of Earth on November 9, 2017, has been described as being “the size of a whale”.


Asteroid 2022 EB5 which landed in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland on March 14, 2022, has been described being “half the size of a giraffe”. And also “the size of a grand piano”.


Asteroid 2021 GT2, which, at its closest, was 2.2 million miles from Earth, has been described as being “the size of three blue whales”.


Asteroid 2022 KP3 passed by Earth at a distance of a little over eight hundred thousand miles the week of June 1st and was described as “the size of an average male giraffe”.


Asteroid 2022 NF, which passed just 56,000 miles from the Earth on July 7th was described as being “the size of a bus”.


Asteroid 2019 NW5, which will make its closest pass of around 3.5 million miles on July 18, 2022, has been described as “bigger than the Statue of Liberty”. And also “airliner-sized”. And “bus-sized”.


Asteroid 418135 (2008 AG33) at its closest was about two million miles form Earth on April 28th, 2022 was described as “the size of two Empire State Buildings”.


Asteroid 7335 (1989 JA) which passed the Earth at a distance of about four million miles on May 27, 2022 was described as being “the size of a small island”.


Asteroid 7482 (1994 PC1) which passed by Earth at a little less than two million miles on January, 18, 2022, was described as being “four times the size of the Eiffel Tower”.


Asteroid 2020 QG which came within just 1,830 miles of Earth on August 16, 2022, was described as “car-sized”.


Asteroid 2007 UY1 which passed Earth at around 3.3 million miles on February 8, 2022, was described as being “the size of the London Eye” and also “football-field sized”.


Asteroid 469219 (2016 HO3), also known as Kamoʻoalewa, discovered in 2016 at the University of Hawaii, remains at least 9.1 million miles from Earth as it orbits the Sun and has been described as “comparable in size to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the Cinderella Castle in Disney World”.


The asteroid that hit the Earth, creating the Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, and wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago, has been described as “mountain-sized” and also “the size of San Francisco”.

And finally…

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”–Douglas Adams