Will Call: Seeing stars
When a CU Boulder student asked Bill Nye what each of us could do daily to keep in touch with the wonder of natural world, he told us pay attention to the phase of the moon.
It seems so basic. Indeed, for most of history you would probably have had to make a concerted effort not to keep track of it. Now, even in this outdoorsy nook of the country, I’m not sure one in three people could so much as ballpark it. That figure might be higher this week, after the latest “supermoon” lit up Facebook feeds.
Why does it matter, though? Well, if you have any passion at all for astronomy or science in general, the lunar cycle is an astronomical phenomena that can be observed with the naked eye almost any night from anywhere in the world. The moon and our distance from it is also about as wide a scale as I can actually grok. It’s not much in the grand scheme of the observable universe, but it’s significant compared to the tiny bounds of our daily lives.
As such, I’m always glad when people get excited about some astronomical event, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.
The supermoon, for instance, was only about 10 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than the opposite extreme. It is the closest it will be until 2034, which I suppose is significant given that it’s actually drifting away over the long run. Still, while it seems to be the phase that induces most people to schedule hikes or bike rides, I’m not sure the full moon is actually my favorite phase. In fact, it actually gets in the way of a lot of astronomical observation. The Leonid meteor shower, for instance, was washed out this month, as will the Geminids in December, though I have seen a few extraordinarily large, long lasting and bright shooting stars lately.
I am reminded of the classic Asimov novella “Nightfall.” In it, he imagines a world with six suns. Its residents are astronomically savvy within their own system, but only experience true night every few thousand years. When the suns finally set, they are suddenly confronted by the stars and must reassess their place in the universe.
Living in Boulder, I had the opposite experience. Unable to see many stars over the red haze of urban lights, I felt almost like I was trapped eternally indoors. They’re the ultimate reminder of our insignificance, which is both comforting and terrifying.
Of course, that leads us to the potential for extraterrestrial life, which I personally think exists but bears very little resemblance to us or the forms with which we’re familiar. I realize that science fiction benefits from making aliens more or less humanoid, but that strikes me as patently absurd without some common ancestry or interference. The latter is precisely what we’d do if confronted with a disappointingly dull extraterrestrial ecosystem, but it’s a bigger can of worms than I’m willing to tackle in print.
Anyway, I think there’s plenty of wonder in the night sky without looking for UFOs and even without big, flashily named astronomical events. The fact that you can peer across millions of miles and thousands of years is mind boggling — though assertions that most of the stars you can see are already dead are exaggerated. It’s one of those things that only gets more amazing as you peek behind the curtain. The mathematical complexity, vast structures and sheer amount of motion in the cosmos is dazzling.
I am consequently mystified by the people who dismiss the study and potential exploration of space as a frivolous distraction. The same argument is not — and should not — be made about art, music, literature, philosophy and any number of other pursuits that seek to elevate humanity in ways beyond the purely physical. I understand the argument that we should fix things here first, but I don’t see that happening. I can’t help but wonder if those people would have said the same to Zheng He or Marco Polo. It is only through exploration that we gain the perspective we need.
Anyway, I’ve done my best to heed Nye’s advice. I don’t have the inclination, skillset or vestibular system to leave this planet, but that doesn’t stop me from looking up.
Will Grandbois is still grumpy that the planetarium at the old Roaring Fork High School was converted to a regular classroom. He can be reached at 384-9105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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