Every October, we Canadians celebrate our version of an old and traditional observance. For us, Thanksgiving is more of a harvest festival than a religious event, although churches usually take part in it. But we're grateful that we enjoy the freedoms and benefits of our wonderful country. Many of our ancestors survived harsh weather conditions, uncertain human relationships and inhospitable terrain. Canada's landscape is vast and often challenging. We've tamed what we could and left the rest to Nature's management. It seems to work quite well on the whole, with missteps that get noticed and resisted.
But today, I want to talk about what makes sky-watchers – astronomers, astrophotographers and star-gazers - thankful. Beyond the usual themes of food, faith and fellowship, what do we appreciate? I shall speak only for myself but hope that my thoughts will resonate with others as well. So … exactly what do I celebrate?
I'm grateful, first of all, to the ancient observers whose legacy I follow. The history of astronomy, and astrology too, is remarkable indeed. At one time, study of the heavens was both scientific, to acquire the knowledge that science embraces, and spiritual, to explain the will of divine beings through myth and legend. Many of our constellations and star clusters, as well as the planets of our solar system, are named for these mythical figures. The creatures of the zodiac can be counted among them, for they are archetypal animals or objects with specific qualities considered to be part of their essences. Today, astronomers use these old names dispassionately. We view them as convenient identification for star patterns. The gods, heroes and strange creatures are, to us, merely labels for structural elements that help us navigate the heavens.
Even "heaven" itself is a very old term. But it still works. The celestial realm, cosmos, universe, void … space itself. Poets use all of these. Our language allows for such variety. But most people just call it the sky.
So I thank the very oldest sky-students for all their work, their meticulous records, and sometimes their courage under adverse conditions. Not everyone trusted or welcomed them. Existing disbelief is a comfortable doctrine.
From 35,000-year-old marked bone sticks that tracked moon phases to the beautiful, German Bronze Age sky disk that even included a depiction of the Pleiades, ancient peoples have left artifacts that prove they were keenly aware of the starry realm above their heads. Stonehenge, after all, is quite probably an astronomical construction. Babylonian star catalogues dating to 1200 BC include Sumerian star names. Greek, Indian and Islamic astronomy were all grounded in Sumerian discoveries. Egyptian and Arab astronomers were both insightful and knowledgeable. They left a legacy of precise observations and many of our stars wear Arabic names, just as they did so long ago. And the Magi were astute sky-watchers. They understood what and where heavenly objects existed and they were quick to recognize anomalies. The Star of Bethlehem was most probably a supernova. It would have been immediately noted and intensively studied. Faith and science aren't always in conflict with each other. Sadly, this opinion isn’t universally held.
The heliocentric view of the solar system, in which planets orbit the sun, dates back far earlier than Galileo or Copernicus. Greek astronomers were a brilliant lot, whose keen minds and logical outlook brought many new ideas to the disciplines of science. Aristarchus of Samos, 300 years BC, postulated that the sun was circled by its planetary attendants. He also grasped the enormity of the universe; unfortunately, Ptolemy later shrank its size when he wrote the Almagest, although he did bring geometric astronomy into prominence for centuries thereafter. I am grateful for these fine minds and the groundwork they laid. I forgive them any inconsistencies or flaws. They lacked the instruments we now possess.
And then there were the Egyptians, whose great temples, erected in the third millennium BC, conformed to specific astronomical observations. The constellation Draco figured in pyramidal alignment to the Pole Star of that time, which was Thuban, not Polaris. When I consider the Draconid meteor shower, I feel somehow linked to people who lived and saw these same stars, almost 5000 years ago. I'm awed, humbled and inspired – all at once. Awe and humility seem necessary if we’re to grow.
Then there are the Chinese with their calculations, observations and star maps. They valued precision and their records are truly astonishing. They left records of supernovae which we can still use as reference data. And in the fourth century BC, the astronomer Gan De created the world's first star catalogue, still in existence. Meanwhile, in America, the Maya and Aztec societies were calculating solar calendars and tracking planetary movements. Then the Arab scientists drew upon existing knowledge, translated vast numbers of source materials, and identified supernovae, the Andromeda galaxy and many other celestial bodies. They introduced the laws of physics into the study of astronomy. They named many stars by which we remember them, and as I gaze at Mizar, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, Altair, Aldebaran, Alderamin, Deneb (dhaneb) and all the others with Arabic names, I'm thankful for the work done by these brilliant mathematicians and students of the skies. I put on this cloak handed to me by strangers’ hands, yet it feels right and familiar.
Therefore, I celebrate the knowledge of the Ancient Ones. I recognize its existence, in part, because it was preserved and enhanced by Roman astronomers and philosophers, who drew on Greek and Arabic works to extend their understanding of the universe. The wondrous star Capella, gleaming in the northeast like some sort of heavenly disco ball, immortalizes the name of Marianus Capella, Roman scholar and teacher whose legacy influenced thinkers of the Middle Ages. His remarkable book, De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii ("On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury"), was a most unusual allegory that examined many academic pursuits. Two of these – astronomy and music – are among my heart's treasures. The influence of this enormous text carried on through the Middle Ages and into the early Renaissance. Indeed, "The universe, which has produced the bee-orchid and the giraffe, has produced nothing stranger than Martianus Capella". – C.S. Lewis
And I praise the memories of all those dedicated monks and other men of the Catholic faith who so laboriously copied information from an earlier day, so it could be preserved and passed down to us. They understood its critical importance to future generations and knew that it must be saved. The Dark Ages would have been even darker, had they not done so. The libraries of the Christian East, at SInai, stand as testament to the accumulated store of knowledge that these men recorded for all time. Astronomy was but one aspect of the great Saint Catherine’s collection, about which more information can be found here: https://www.loc.gov/collections/manuscripts-in-st-catherines-monastery-mount-sinai/articles-and-essays/microfilming-projects-at-mount-sinai-and-jerusalem/
But the centuries rolled on. Enter the Copernican Revolution, which turned the scientific world on its ear and introduced concepts that were to become integral to a growing body of knowledge based on observation, experiment and precise records of findings. Heliocentrism became widely accepted although Tycho Brahe deviated from this particular principle with a rather odd alternative theory. However, he also left meticulous detail which was utilized by Johannes Kepler, his successor. Ah, Kepler! I'm most appreciative of his incisive intellect. The three laws of planetary motion. The final confirmation, contrary to his predecessor’s argument, of a sun-centered system with planets in elliptical orbits around it. The early 17th century was a time of great change and ground-breaking discoveries. I bow to these individuals and their commitment to the progress of scientific understanding. It would have come eventually but thanks to their work, it came then and not later.
And then … Galileo.
What can one say about this man's achievements, short of writing yet another book about him? With a rudimentary telescope, he identified lunar craters, Jovian moons, sunspots and so much else. His book on these topics was banned during the Inquisition and he was declared a heretic for what he believed. The Church authorities wished to continue the fallacy that the earth was the centre of creation. He endured house arrest until his death – a man of courage, whose determination never wavered. He wanted to share truth. He felt it did not contradict faith. His is the name that reverberates down the ages, whenever spiritual teachings are raised in opposition to scientific explorations. And how deeply I revere that name.
Sir Isaac Newton is another sacred benefactor of our science. While Kepler explained how the planets moved, Newton showed us why this was happening. He combined physical laws with astronomical observations. He provided us with the mechanics behind the movements. Again, it would require many textbooks to fully encompass Newton's phenomenal contributions to the quest for knowledge. He, too, is a figure whom I view with the utmost gratitude and respect.
Then there are Halley and Herschel and all the others who continued to press for further awareness of our cosmos. And finally, there are the women! At last, their names are raised and known. They were there all along, but almost silent in the literature. They, too, would have stared into the night and chronicled the stars in their own fashion. And we will never learn the fullest scope of their influence – because they were women. Their efforts wouldn't have counted for as much as those of their male counterparts, back in their day. But they definitely count now!
Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn are household names now, thanks to their story as told in "Hidden Figures". NASA has raised women scientists to heights once undreamed-of. These three join Nancy Grace Roman – "Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope" – Margaret J. Geller, the universe mapmaker; Caroline Herschel, William's sister, who developed the NGC catalogue system of identification; the brilliant astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin; the great Vera Rubin whose work affirmed the existence of dark matter and should have earned her a Nobel Prize … so many, many others. I don't often refer to a Wiki link in my blogs but this will be an exception. Each and every woman identified in this list can be further studied by clicking her name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_astronomers
Among the women listed on that page, Hypatia of Alexandra remains one of my icons. She was an astonishing individual whose contributions to Ptolemaic thought and other scientific explorations are worthy of mention, many centuries after her death. She was murdered by Christians – a martyr to science. And science is under considerable threat for political (and religious) reasons in the present day. I will leave it at that.
My thankfulness is unbounded, however. I walk a road that has been made for me by the feet of countless pioneering men and women of intellect, imagination and intrepid commitment to their pursuit of discovery.
And now, today, this gratitude encompasses things as well as people. Galileo's modest telescope has given way to immense instruments that probe deep into the universe. I pore over their images in wonderment and awe. Astronomers across the globe share data among themselves and with the rest of humanity. Theories are propounded, discussed, examined and sometimes accepted - with support from a vast array of technological ammunition. From DSLRs to dew shields, spectrometry to spacecraft, we have an astronomical banquet within out reach. People have walked on the moon and plan an expedition to Mars. I see the ISS as it passes far above my delighted eyes. I dream and I dance.
My cameras and lenses have become irreplaceable companions as they, too, examine the night and record what it reveals. Every year, new developments yield better equipment, even for amateurs. Even for backyard astronomers like me. Much of it is somewhat affordable, albeit a budgetary stretch. Now the legions of astronomy fans and astrophotographers include a wide spectrum of us. We're not necessarily rich or highly-educated or famous. We're quite likely to be rather ordinary and unheralded, just folks, enjoying what we love.
I'm incredibly blessed by my friends in this field. Thanks to Tim Doucette, owner and astronomer of Deep Sky Eye observatory, I'm able to view the stars as I could never otherwise experience them. He's a mentor without equal and I've learned more than I could ever have thought possible for someone of my age. Because of Tim’s guidance and also his gear, I can navigate the night sky, identify its various features and share this information with visitors to the dome. I can work at mastering complex equipment, imaging and processing. Tim and his wife, Amanda, are amazing! His whole family is involved in this venture and they’ve welcomed me as a friend. They're super-special. I am blessed beyond measure to have met them and on Thanksgiving Day, to have been included at their feast.
So there it is – an astronomer's Thanksgiving. I could write a thousand pages but since this is already long enough for three blogs, I'll stop now. Needless to say, I owe a great many people a boundless debt of acknowledgement. And, as children of the universe in which we live, so do we all.
UPDATE: I'm pleased to announce that we've raised $490 during our Star Party for the various charities. Thank you to everyone who attended!
What an awesome event with more than 170 people! Everyone had fun despite the early arrival of the fog. A huge thank you to all those that helped make this possible including the Quinan & District Volunteer Fire Department, East Coast Paddle Company, the Kespu'kwitk Métis Council, Linda for putting together live music, our guest speaker John Read, and all our volunteers. We hope to do it all again next year!
Last weekend, under rather inconsistent skies, a group of yoga practitioners gathered in the Night Owl camping area of the Deep Sky Eye complex. Under the guidance of Kate Giglio, from Super Nova Power Yoga, these seven individuals placed their mats on the good earth and spent an hour or so in the calm of summer dusk. The Quinan River sang quietly to itself and crickets drowsily accompanied the water's music. Human breath joined with the wind and the evergreen incense in a blend of absolute peace.
Because I am not a yogi, I chose not to intrude into their space. Instead, since the observatory area was set up for a reception and sky session, I cheerfully hung out there. With Amanda's delectable munchies and the group's enthusiastic chatter, this break unfolded in happy harmony. I hadn't seen Kate for awhile and was glad to touch base with her, and get an update on her puppy's current medical situation. He'd experienced some earlier distress that meant a vet call; fortunately, it proved to be easily treated and the dear fellow (dog, not vet) went home to recover.
The usual observation routine was changed to accommodate both the overcast and the group, who spent time gazing through the large telescope and enjoying an informative lecture given by Tim. There was no outdoor skywatching because the mist had closed in. We could see Mars, glowering balefully through haze, and Jupiter flirted briefly with us - but not much else showed up. Still, no one seemed to mind.
Speaking of "mind", since yoga embrace mindfulness and awareness of both self and cosmos, it's appropriate to point out that both stargazing and yogic exercising can lead to a state of expanded consciousness. One original meaning of yoga was "to join", as with a yoke, the root word. When we practise specific forms of movement or meditation, we reach both inside ourselves and outside our own bodies. I did pursue basic Tai Chi and found this to be true for that context. When I stare upward, and the galaxies wheel through the vast universe, I feel somehow connected to this inconceivably distant light. During a "sky tour" session, as I retell old myths and legends associated with various star formations - from Cassiopeia to the Summer Triangle – I sense a connectedness with the ancient people who once stood as I do now. They must have released part of themselves to the cosmos, imagining flight to or among the deities they believed to inhabit it. They probably identified with the jealous betrayal of Callisto by Juno (Ursa Major), the warriors' rivalry of Mars (Ares) with Antares, or the swan's flight (Cygnus) by which a transformed Orpheus plays his immortal lyre (Lyra) until the world ends.
Yoga, from my understanding, disciplines the mind as well as unleashing its potential. We cannot progress without the former. Randomness becomes chaos. Entropy nudges thermal energy – stars or body heat – into fragmentation and disorder. We need a sense of wholeness, both above and within. Our bodies are microcosmic. Sagan has called us "star stuff" and indeed, we are exactly this. Molecular dust clouds form the Great Rift running through the Milky Way, and from this dust come new stars. Apparent randomness moves toward predictability. Entropy is a quality as opposed to a process, although it causes processes to occur. Can it be reversed? It's linked to time, but our concept of time is linear and moves in one direction: past to present. But what if time can be reversed? Would the character of entropy then change? Would it initiate, instead of destruction, the steps toward unity and creation?
I wish Stephen Hawking were here to further debate these questions. He was, after all, the authority on temporal processes and concepts. Even wrote a "brief history" of the whole idea. I miss him. As my husband was dying of ALS, we watched the wonderful movie, The Theory of Everything, which starred Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. We pondered huge questions of mortality, infinity, hope against despair - and our own place in all of this enormous, unknowable lemniscate. We came to no conclusions. Perhaps there are none for ordinary mortals to reach. David departed into the cosmos a month later - back to the stars whence he had come.
Being an artist, and not a physical scientist, I have no idea what much of this highly technical information actually means. I can read about it, translate it according to my own understanding, relate it to my personal experience - but I'm incapable of viewing it knowledgably. It is, literally, beyond me. All I can do is celebrate the night, the inexorable turn of our galaxy, the pivot of constellations and star clusters around Polaris. The ecliptic determines where the planets can move, from our earthly perspective. We each possess our own ecliptic as well, which prescribes our individual path through the world. Can the practice of yoga assist us in discovering where that ecliptic is located, how we can move along it? I don't know that either. Kate could probably tell me and perhaps she'll comment to this blog post.
At any rate, the evening was a beautiful experience – personally and collectively. I could judge this by the eagerness of the participants, there laughter, the joy in their eyes. When they left, I paused to assemble my own thoughts and drove slowly home. Cats were on the road as always, stepping cautiously along the shoulder, gleam-eyed like embers. I always take care so I won't end their lives. The same goes for the clumsy porcupines, the raccoon family clustered on the centre line, the ash-coloured fox loping past me on my own road. They matter to me. We are connected, and while I look upward, they cannot, so I must do it for them.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
The past week or so has seen a battle between fog and meteors. Some nights were simply too hazy for good viewing, while others featured brilliant and very active skies. On Sunday, August 5, we were treated to an early display of meteors from the Perseids and an ongoing show by the Aquariids, in totally different directions. They were zipping overhead like crazy! The visitors sat in the sky circle and stared up in awe. Tim's usual sky tour was punctuated by exclamations and gasps as each new meteor streaked overhead.
On Friday night, after an unsettled week of rather poor visibility, conditions repeated those of the previous Sunday. Because the size of the group was 22 people, Tim set up his video screen on the outside of the observatory and everyone gathered in a semicircle to watch and listen. As darkness intensified, the Milky Way rose and the meteors began to arrive. We were closer to the Perseids peak, so this was anticipated, although there are no guarantees. While predawn viewing is normally best for many of these events, we found that after 10 PM was a very productive time for action above us. Several of these meteors left long, smoking trails. I gave the guided sky tour to half of this group, while the other half went up to the dome, and then they switched places. Once more, the tour was interrupted by exclamations as each new meteor shot across the heavens. I missed some that the audience could see behind me. But that was okay; they were experiencing a rare treat and many had never seen such clear skies for meteor-watching. None of us expected this number to appear!
Fast-forward to Sunday, August 12. This was the Perseid shower's peak night and it did not disappoint. A smaller group enjoyed the performance, which was at its best around 10:30 or so – before some mistiness drifted in. As midnight approached, much of the clarity was gone, but by then everyone was in the dome and the telescope could find plenty to see.
These meteor showers often seem to coincide with bright moonlight, so it was a pleasure to have no moon interference with these. I remember last year's Perseid peak: it rained. Might have been a decent affair but we missed it. Not so this time!
Displays of this nature serve as reminders of just how much is "up there", and where it comes from. The meteors are remnants and particles from various bodies, normally comet fragments in an elliptical orbit through which the earth passes each year. The Perseids are shed from comet Swift-Tuttle. The Aquariids – and there are two groups of these, one north and one south – come from breakups of Marsden and Kracht sungrazing comets, which are quite young and closely approach the sun. Each fragment is tiny, often the size of pea gravel. Its vivid flare comes from friction as it enters the atmosphere. Larger pieces can fall to the surface and sometimes cause damage, although this is uncommon. A few explode as they fall, and these are called bolides or fireballs. They're pretty impressive! After I returned home and continued skywatching, I spotted one such bolide as it burst into light above my trees. I was able to catch a part of it with my camera – sheer luck. Astrophotographers set long exposures in the direction of the radiant point, from which each meteor shower originates, and hope for the best. We take our shots over, and over, and over. Many do time-lapse exposures that continue all night, automatically. Tim set up a couple of these during two different nights. I had to be content with manually doing 30-second images.
In the end, our response to this month's Meteor Week was very positive. Many years tend to be less than stellar (no pun) where meteors are concerned. Anxiously, people watch and wait, and wait, and wait - only to see a couple brief fizzles and a lot of empty sky. But not so in 2018!
There are other meteor showers to come. The Old Farmer's Almanac always includes a Canadian list of these, as do astronomy websites such as EarthSky. Our next ones will be the Draconids in October around the 7th through 9th, and again, there won't be moonlight to interfere. So if you missed the Perseids, mark your October calendars for the next show. It's free and it's often unforgettable.
Below - a selection of meteor shots!
While Luna swells and brightens the night with her pale magic, Mars the Warrior marches past the earth and glares red-amber as he goes. This lesser god currently outshines the mighty Jupiter himself. The quiet, familiar moon keeps moving through cycles as predictable as the sea's tides, which depend on that same moon to pull them around the earth. But our skies are full of planets this month – Venus sets early, Jupiter follows, Saturn proceeds across the arch and then Mars follows. For those with access to a powerful telescope, even the tiny speck of Mercury can be detected if its location is known. The general viewer won't be able to see it, however.
Not so with Mars. He's anything but elusive! The Red Planet, hanging so huge and brilliant in our July nights, has reached the peak of its opposition to the sun. It's also closer to us than it has been for 15 years and is at its nearest approach in a 2-year orbital cycle as well. Back in 2003, it was the closest it has been in around 60,000 years. "Mars Attack!" indeed, but nothing like the movie. This time around, it's almost but not quite at its 2003 distance. As far as planets are concerned, the War God is in our front yard.
So we have Moon and Mars together on stage. These are two partners in a cosmic dance, because they happen to be present in the same time frame, both very bright. Yet they never interact with each other. Mars is a passerby at the edge of the scene. Luna is engaged in a crowd-rousing waltz with Terra and this will continue until long after we are dust. We can appreciate her radiant presence and celebrate it through all the seasons. Every culture has its own name for each full moon. The Mi'kmaw Moon name for this one is Peskewiku’s, Birds Shedding Feathers. Indeed, with mating season finished and the young well on their way to independence, the adult birds begin their moult. Breeding plumage is replaced by newer growth. Even the riot of song from avian throats has given way to more sedate calls. Summer has reached its height and with it, the lunar cycle waxes toward the full on July 27th.
To honour this special combination of moon and Mars, Tim is offering sessions for viewing them - together with the other visible planets - as they appear in this rather unusual context. Further information can be found through his link on the Homepage. Having attended one of the moon sessions as an ordinary "paying customer", I can emphatically state that here is one heck of a deal - definitely worthwhile and impossible to duplicate. We're treated to a lengthy experience, both at the big telescope and outside under the wider sky. An introductory talk sets the stage for the rest of the show. Tim's breadth of knowledge is remarkable, as is his personal story. And the "star of the evening" isn't a star at all, but our nearest neighbour. Luna never fails to disappoint. I can't adequately convey the sense of awe and wonder I felt when I was able to peer through the eyepiece and zoom in on lunar features that seemed to leap up toward me, in 3D. Craters, ridges, rings within rings, ash streaks, spatters and scree. It's truly jaw-dropping. How does one assign a monetary value to such a vision?
The photo above was taken with my modest Canon 6D, coupled with the 14" scope under Tim's direction. It gives some idea of the moon's impact on an observer, yet nothing compares to being right there, eye pressed to the glass, breath indrawn. The planets are also in attendance as supporting players. Mars, of course, is the second lead. But whereas a full moon comes back month after month, Mars in close opposition isn't your regular display.
The following links provide more detailed information on the Mars phenomenon. It ought to be an amazing week ahead!
It's been a rather low-key week at the observatory, thanks to unsettled skies that bring considerable cloud in the evenings, then clear much too late for visitors to enjoy many observing sessions. One night, however, offers perfection. The stars move in their courses and a small group arrives to look at them. Afterwards, Tim shows me how to image with his Televue refractor. My assignment is to process a test frame just to see how it turns out. We choose the Lagoon Nebula for this introduction to Refractor Imaging 101 and I must admit that I feel a bit out of my depth in these waters. Still, it becomes what is usually called "a learning experience". I learn that imaging demands a serious level of commitment and a considerable store of knowledge. Tim learns that stubborn old ladies don't always master a new skill on the first try, or most likely not on the tenth try either. I will think back and replay this lesson, then decide I'll probably need another go at it. Nothing is intuitive about this particular pursuit.
It well may be that I'm a landscape astrophotographer at heart, more comfortable with catching the Milky Way as it spans the night - or Orion as he strides above the evergreens when autumn begins. It's exciting for me to anticipate meteor showers and set up my camera in the hope of freezing a bright streak or two. I imagine these pea-specks, shaken off a comet's tail perhaps, drawn to their doom by gravity. They die in brilliance. Theirs is no ordinary passing.
But for now, I spend time alone with myself, since I'm not needed to assist with these few people. Even a reflected planet in a pool of still water gives me cause for an indrawn breath. Mars is rising golden, closer than it will be again for thousands of years. I take a dozen shots, praying for the right composition, the perfect blend of earth and air. Down by the Quinan River, I wander as I wait for my instruction after everyone else has left, and listen to their happy chat. Astronomy brings both awareness and celebration. The enormity of space can be a frightening thought. We shrink to less than a meteor grain. Our own trails are brief. Yet we dance like moths to light in all its manifestations. We raise our eyes to the universe and laugh, because we're here, and human, and very much attuned to our lives. And with every guest who gasps in wonder at these crystalline stars (for many never see such glory from their urban homes), I become more aware of my good fortune. I am more determined to capture something beyond the Milky Way, after all; to look above, through and beyond.
And therein lies the telescope's magnetism. Unlike a camera lens, it can bring me closer to something "beyond the fields we know", to borrow from Lord Dunsany. Science makes reality of magic. What the ancient philosophers could merely imagine, we can see for ourselves. What they were forced to speculate, we can prove. For them, the only lagoons were enclosed by sand or coral, cradled in the sea. For me, there's another lagoon with rosy streamers of nebulosity - the stuff of unborn stars I will never see.
I'll close with one of my poems, which probably needs a quick explanation. In 2014, astronomers discovered the oldest known star in the universe. Its age could be quite accurately determined - dating back to only about 100 million years after the Big Bang itself. This fascinated me at the time and from that story, a poem was born - but I didn't even have access to a scope when I wrote it, so I used an imaginary reflector. Poetic licence and so on. Science is art too. There are many kinds of perception.
Still, I write in my personal language and the sky answers in another. It speaks in tongues of fire, punctuated by dust. I will continue studying this code and perhaps translate some of it. If not, I can just pretend that I know all the words.
Caught in the Light Bucket
SM0313 - age 13.6 billion years
When this beam first began, God may have slept
between the newest universe and the last. We give
a holy name to him; we credit his hands. The Sistine
finger tempts us with fires from no fires; lands
from no lands; suns wheeling backward
unsparked, to edges where nothing matters,
where matter is nothing.
All dross has vapoured away - time's scintillae,
just like mine. Water and air now. I release gravity
from my arms; the scope sings, deep as rubbed glass.
We both listen to harmonics of the plasmic jar
while night brushes against us: its alto hum,
shushing around the observatory. Sky's voice.
I cant the reflector barrel, apply an eye,
as this oldest star in the cosmos waggles
its corona within my Milky Way - scooped up,
a spaceborn orphan that has since outlived every
possible parent it might have claimed.
I have drawn it now, too, from the rift between
where it started and where it needs to go.
Brenda Levy Tate
On this fine evening, twelve eager participants were treated to views of the waxing moon, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and the wide vista of a very bright sky. Much detail was washed out by the lunar radiance, though. The Milky Way was a vague trace. The constellations were partially visible but fragmented. Cygnus the Swan flew on shortened wings.
Still, every clear night brings its own glories.
Seeing this reduced skyscape got me thinking about seeing in general – vision and its variances – on a symbolic as well as a literal level. In centuries past, several powerful rulers, whose very word could determine a subject’s survival, were affected by distance-vision impairments. One wonders if this affected their responses to various events and individuals. The Tudor line comes to mind, as Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I all faced that particular challenge. I share this affliction, having spent decades battling myopia, unable to detect even the most enormous highway signs without very strong eyeglasses. I learned to navigate safely but I did miss the nuances. When my shortcoming was finally corrected by lens implants, it was like seeing the fullness of the Milky Way for the first time. It was a revelation! It transformed the way I approached almost everything. I could see and my mirrored image showed me … my own self. I had become a universe with every part identifiable and named.
The metaphor can easily be translated to astronomy, I think. A telescope can be adjusted to compensate for optical shortcomings. Every view becomes an astonishment. The pallor of the moon-drenched zenith might diminish the starfield but it also means that we can see the lunar surface and this, too, is a remarkable experience. We miss the lesser lights and discover the details which former ages could never have witnessed. Craters within craters. Spatters and dust streaks and the shadows of vast, rubble-strewn maria – “seas” where no water has ever been. Ash cones. Scars beyond number. These have written a partial story of our own planet's past, long before a protective atmosphere was formed and then periodically even afterwards. We, too, have our planetary scars. But those are a subject for another time.
When the moon wanes, as it inevitably must, the fainter stars return like a revelation. Constellations once more assume full visibility. Distant objects are restored as visible components of the nightscape. And many of us discover that we prefer them to the pale blaze that drowns their presence. We see the nebulosities, the galaxies, the clouds of interstellar matter and even the dust lanes.
Tim has spoken of visitors who have never encountered the Milky Way as we view it here. He tells about their reactions - how they sometimes step backward in awe, almost disbelieving at the sight of this new bnlliance. We take it for granted but to someone in a light-polluted city, living where nobody shuts off the electric glare for even a single night, the impact of such a vision must be powerful indeed.
With larger group sessions, half the visitors wait outside in the observing area, seated comfortably to chat and gaze. Most seem very happy to do this. They don’t mind waiting for access to the large scope because this sky is so wondrous to them – so strange in its clarity and immensity. Sometimes, they’re treated to a meteor’s fiery trail. On this particular night, the path of a satellite attracted much attention. We compared its appearance to that of a plane and discussed how one could tell the difference. This might be a small thing to folks who walk under this kind of sky without a second thought, but to those who don’t, it’s quite exciting. It is beyond their experiences back home. They have become vicarious explorers of space itself, the realm of dreamers and poets. I believe their vision has become expanded and their sight, of both mind and eye, dramatically enhanced.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken …
John Keats (On First Looking into Chapman's Homer)
The sky spread huge and vivid as a small group of visitors wandered the grounds, then shared a heavenly viewing session, both inside the observatory and outside on the starwatch platform. I knew one of these folks – a teacher with whom I’d worked for many years – who brought three of her IB Physics students. Ironically, I had taught the father of one student! I didn’t tell her, though. One cannot appear too ancient and rust-crusted.
Another member of the party had hitchhiked across Canada, reaching the East Coast and anticipating the journey’s end in Newfoundland. She was from Germany, and she said that she’d only had to walk maybe 60 km without a ride. This, friends, is the Canadian reality. People hitchhike and they enjoy positive experiences. We’re a vibrant mosaic. We accept and appreciate the vast variety of humanity. And we welcome travelers from all over the globe. Some fall in love with our country and return to settle here.
But tonight, everyone was focused on the larger universe. As the assembled audience spent their time with Tim, the big scope, and the vast curve of the cosmos, I roamed with my tripod and wide-angle lens. The first new bubble-dome tent was now set up. The guests took a look around inside and came away enthused at the possibilities. Later, on my own, I unzipped the flap and explored the interior. Above me, clear plastic arched with the contours of a northern midnight. I could see the Milky Way, which is at its best now and for the next three or four months. Jupiter reigned over the southern horizon. Evergreens ringed the site like a rank of guardians but didn’t intrude on the view. I stood quietly, bound by the magic of this place, this enormous bowl of worlds upon worlds. My camera remained outside as the heated space fogged the lens, but simply keeping it inside to acclimatize would have prevented this. Next time, I’ll do that with one camera and leave the other in the open air. But for now, it was enough to dream and stare.
I imagined myself lying there, comfortable in a sleeping bag, snuggled down for sleep but unable to drift anywhere except upward. The starry vision circled my head. It closed on me. As a musician, I couldn’t help but be reminded of John Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”, written in 1687 but applicable here as well. Oddly enough, St. Cecilia is the patron saint of the blind and of course, Tim Doucette is widely known as “the blind astronomer” (even though his night vision is far superior to mine). Everything connects.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
Dryden was writing in a spiritual context, describing the creation of the universe as a mighty and immortal work of music. Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” seems to fit, although the poet wouldn’t have known that, as he was dead by then. But I knew it, while I listened to the silence and gazed in wonder at the “universal frame” within that celestial circle. Perhaps I have always known it. Astronomy then becomes a synesthesia of sound and movement and light.
I reflected on all these things as I took the winding road home.
Today has proven to be quite extraordinary. Tim’s brand-new Lunt solar refractor was set up on a tracking mount, prepared for use. This specialized 60 mm instrument is solely dedicated to viewing the sun. A solar filter, to permit safe daytime observation, was attached to general-use Celestron 9.25” SCT on its very solid base. (For whatever reason, most people refer to refractors in metric, and larger scopes in inches – go figure). Then we all waited for the sun to show us its bright face through a fairly serious overcast. A frost advisory had already been posted for overnight. This isn’t your ordinary June in southwest Nova Scotia.
Meanwhile, a school bus from Digby High, containing almost forty grade 9s, made its way to the observatory. This sort of educational outreach is such a positive outcome of developing an astronomical centre in our region! Interest in the skies and in leaning about them is best started young. It takes time to learn, and we never stop absorbing new information. These young people stand to reach from earth into the heavens if they choose to pursue that path. Interplanetary probes, manned spacecraft and highly-advanced satellite technology provide a continuing development for the future. They offer hope for the survival of humanity as we outgrow our space on this crowded planet.
The enthusiastic and lively students eventually arrived, with their watchful and patient teacher-chaperones, one of whom I knew from my own teaching days. And the sun … did not arrive! Instead of solar observation, the students enjoyed a walk around the newly-developed campground under the sky, with explanatory talks en route. They seem impressed with the setup and the idea of bubble dome tents from which occupants could view the stars as they rested comfortably within. These kids were interested in everything. They asked relevant questions and clearly wanted to know more about the project.
The students then proceeded toward the dome itself. Beforehand, they were treated to some draw prizes (astronomy-themed, of course) and given an opportunity to examine the two telescopes sitting in the ground viewing area. Sadly, they were unable to make use of them. Sol Invictus, right? The sun would not be conquered on this day. Still, they seemed to appreciate the observatory tour and their introduction to the massive 14-inch telescope housed under its dome. Tim provided them with detailed information about it. One lucky winner even received a complementary night-sky session as her draw prize, so it’s hoped that she will return and perhaps bring a companion to enjoy this experience. Tim and Amanda also made available an array of cupcakes in addition to the prize draws. These went fast.
When the bus was reloaded and disappeared down the long road back to Digby, all seemed eerily silent. Part of the appeal of this special place is, in fact, this sense of peace and detachment from ordinary cares. At night, the vast bowl of heaven arches into infinity, and the stars wheel in their courses without regard for mere mortals gazing upward. In the daytime, birdsong and the river’s music accompany a different sort of hushed reflection. The energies of these teenagers proved a wonderful counterpoint and we do need both. All in all, it turned out to be a most rewarding day at Deep Sky Eye.