On First Looking into the Moonlight and Beyond
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)