Sunday, February 22, 2009

A comet among us

Arne faces Newsmakers (C-CPAN) in a few hours. He'll likely twaddle away about some manufactured success story, a few of us will likely twitter about his twaddle, and meanwhile the universe continues to be amazing.

I need to focus more on what matters.

This morning's thoughts are fueled by oysters we ate last night, oysters that were having whatever oyster thoughts they have just hours earlier when I scampered along the jetty and plucked them off the rocks.

No sense contaminating a good oyster stew with politics. Let's talk about the universe instead.

There's a comet overhead. It's green. It's easily visible in binoculars.

Most folks who hear about it in this part of the world will read about it somewhere, maybe even talk about it, and make no attempt to see it, because, well, once you've seen the photos....

A few folks will get a vicarious visceral thrill pondering the millions of years it will take Lulin to return, imagining what Earth was like last time it passed by the sun, imagining a world beyond their deaths.

A handful of people, though, might go outside and look for it.

If you do not know much about constellations, finding the comet may seem impossible, but I think I can get you there in less than 5 minutes. A caveat before you get chilled by the late February night. This is not your father's Hale-Bopp.

Friday night I saw the comet in 7X binoculars: the comet was a generous-sized faint green blob of fuzz without any tail I could see. I hope to catch it with 20x binos later this week, but it's unlikely that I will see anything like the photos.

Why bother? I still have a thing for reality. I get a bang when my retina captures photons that have bounce off something I want to see. Naked eye is best. Binoculars come second. Either way, my retina gets excited by a photon that made contact with that comet.

Here's my version of how to catch the green comet.

Go outside around 10 PM or so. (Yep, outside--trying to see the comet through a window is like trying to taste ice cream by licking the box.)

Look in the general southeast direction--if you're directionally challenged, try to remember where the sun comes up. About a third to halfway up, you can see a yellowish bright "star" that does not twinkle--that's Saturn.

Now look up and to the right of Saturn and look for a group of stars that look like a giant backward question mark.

The star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus. (It's about 77 1/2 light years away--it takes a photon about one human lifetime to get here.)

Draw an imaginary line between Saturn and Regulus. Now sweep your binoculars along this line. Tomorrow the comet will be just below Saturn along this line; by Saturday, it will be kissing Regulus.

Is it worth looking for? I can't answer that. Neither can the Google news, nor the pretty weather woman telling you about it on the evening news.

I can tell you this:
You are going to be long dead before Lulin comes back.

And this:
Your monitor holds no surprises.

And also this:

So long as western culture exists in its present form,
you will always have pretty weather women (and men) ready to provide
you with vicarious living, talking of miracles in the sky.

I am frightened by the prospect of death, but even more scared of not living. Once the scales tip the other way, I'll wile away most of my waking hours in front of the monitor.

Until then, I'll keep looking up.

The picture is by Paolo Candy, who named the comet the Sword Comet.
I found the photo in Sky and Telescope.
(He named Comet Holmes the Jellyfish Comet--he is truly a comet artist)

The Leo constellation is from NASA--the backwards "?" is on the right.


Kate T said...

Hello Michael -
I agree that you need to see it (whatever it might be) with your own eyes. The skies have always been fun to watch - growing up in Eastern SD there were always more stars in the sky than I see now living in the city. And meteor showers. But it was on a night sail- sailing hard to make Antigua after a grueling charter- off Martinique where I first saw the Southern Cross and Haley's Comet - in the same night on the horizon. We had to still be pretty far south to have seen them. They weren't our usual Caribbean sky. Moving, beautiful, worth staying up for even if it wasn't my watch.

Jeremy said...

That's one good think about living in the middle of nowhere...little to no light pollution. I'm hoping for clear skies so that I can catch a glimpse of this (literally) once in a lifetime opportunity. Great post on expressing the importance of getting OUT and looking up at the stars.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

I get frightened under truly dark skies. My Dad lived in Vermont. When I would visit, it felt like I could touch the stars, and they could touch me. I suppose that's comforting for many, but scared the snot out of me.

I can be out for an hour or two, and suddenly get spooked. I can only imagine what the SD skies look like on a moonless night.

Sailing under the stars must be mesmerizing.

Dear Jeremy,

Thanks for the words, and welcome to blogging!