Saturday, October 20, 2012

Star hustling

If you bother to look up at the stars tonight, you may be blessed with the bright flash of a piece of Halley's Comet as the Earth slides through pieces of its tail, as we do every year around this time.

Last time that comet passed through our piece of the solar system was over a quarter century ago. My students today will be in their mid-60's the next time it rolls around, and I'll be long dead.

Halley's comet, 1986, credit NASA
A couple of students spent a chunk of their Friday afternoon learning how to use a telescope. We get the usual silly remarks ("Hey, it works better in the dark") from folks passing by. We practice in the daytime because we're visual creatures, and until the students get to know a scope with their hands, our star parties have a bit of fumbling. 
If you ask a child if she has any interest in a starling--a rather nondescript bird that has taken over urban landscapes because of some rich ass who decided to introduce the birds of Shakespeare into Central Park about 120 years ago (and which led to, among other things, the death of 62 people seventy years later when a few thousand birds sent a plane down in Boston)--she'd say no.
European starling, via Globe Tribune

They're everywhere, these starlings, and when we see one, we see dozens, hundreds--the mass of dull screeches and drab feathers blends into just one more uninteresting thing we pass by every day.
You'd say no, too.
Unless you see one, just one, sitting on the top of an evergreen, singing, preening, being the bird that it is, while you spy on it a hundred yards away, with a decent scope.
I have no idea why we find things interesting in general, except we never find things interesting "in general"--love lies in the details, and in an 8" scope with a decent Plössl eyepiece, individual feathers fill the view. Wow!

Every person who has looked through our scope while we practice getting our fingers to learn what our eyes already know has a similar response--because living critters, when watched closely for what they are (and only that), are interesting.

You don't need your fingers to watch  meteors--just look up.
If the first visible meteor takes more than a few moments before it makes its grand sweep across the sky, keep looking up.
Look at individual stars. We're just a few days past the new moon, so it should be plenty dark--dark enough to see the Milky Way if you get away from the artificial light that defiles our night skies. Look at the color of each star. Look at the patterns the stars make. 
If you can hold still long enough (and this is a hard thing worth learning, this holding still), your sense of urgency that drives you through the day will leak out of you, and you will see the stars move. Literally. Just look to the southwest along treeline, and look. The stars creep up at an angle.
Polaris pins the rest of the starry pinwheel against the black velvet as we continue to spin. You can see this if you care to--and if you care to, your life changes.

A meteor streaking across a sky is interesting, and brings joy--I do not know why, but I have seen hundreds, possibly thousands, of meteors, and every one of them brought me (and those who shared the view) joy.

Every year I try to get a few (or more) students to look up, to find joy in the starlings and the stars. I am a star hustler.

Jack Horkheimer was the original star hustler--made a career out of it, talking star stories on PBS. 
He learned about stars because they interested him, not because of any science class. (He was a drama major in college.)

It'd be nice to think a student or two might remember learning about Halley's way back when they wandered outside on a Saturday night to catch a meteor or two--but that's besides the point.
 As it should be.


Sue VanHattum said...

Haley's Comet, huh? We saw something so big on Wednesday evening (as we got out of the car) that it looked like a flaming rock. My son thought it was fireworks, with all the sparks streaming off it. But there was no noise.

I've never seen one that big before. I thought I might hear the news later that it had hit ground and caused lots of destruction.

Lee said...

I've been looking for shooting stars the past few nights because the stars have been so fantastic. So far no luck. Anytime I'm out in the dark I can't help but look up. Might as well, can't see anything on the ground in the dark anyway ;-)

A month or so back there was a Lost & Found ad in the local newspaper from a woman who lost her pet starling. She wrote that if anyone noticed an overly friendly starling to give her a call. I hope she found it.

On my way to work this week I noticed quite a few porcupine quills in the road. No sign of the critter but he/she left someone with a painful mouth no doubt.

That's all. Just some ramblings from someone who lately has become allergic to the indoors. :)

Kate said...

I saw a few hundred starlings flying in beautiful swoops and swirls over the football field in my city. I know they aren't native (my aunt the birder rolled her eyes at them but my mother could only muster contempt for grackles), but they were lovely last week.

I look up and the stars are laughing.