austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Instead of sleep, pretend that you are watching the sky

With the exciting news about the flares of star EV Lacertae my e-mail has been filling up with letters asking, ``Walter, won't you please explain amateur astronomy?'' My name's not Walter. I don't know anybody whose name is. I'm starting to grow concerned. Who knows what sorts of things Walter is being asked to explain in letters addressed to Donald? That's not either of our names.

Astronomy is the practice of looking at the sky to see if anything interesting is going on, and keeping careful notes in case it isn't. The sky may be found by going out of doors (about as many as you entered from) and looking up, if one is in the northern hemisphere, or down, if one is in the eastern hemisphere. People in the north-eastern quadrisphere need to look up and then down very rapidly, using the phenomenon of ``persistence of vision'' until they fall over. This is why comfortable lawn chairs are favored in amateur astronomy. The sky is not visible from the south-western quadrisphere. There may not even be such a thing as a quadrisphere.

To maintain amateur status one needs only bring an individual's eyes. However, anything which collects light will be useful in helping to see darker objects, and so one might bring along binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, quadrants, sextants, octants, and small black holes to use as focusing lenses. It is considered poor form to drop a black hole into the center of the earth, so be careful. Note that all these light-gathering instruments pull light away from other areas so you will often see where amateur astronomers gather a darkness much richer and higher-quality than you will other places. Don't be scared. The night sky is just as afraid of you as you are of it.

As the night sky has over fourteen visible objects it helps to have some guide to what they are. For convenience the sky is divided into a number of constellations, patterns of stars which look strikingly like a couple of little bright dots in the sky, except for Orion, and the Big Unless That's The Little Dipper, plus maybe the one that looks like a W. Unfortunately for modern viewers the constellations were devised to look like things important to Greco-Roman Mythology, such as the Trojan Horse, the Aqueducts, and the Metamorphoses by Ovid.

Constellations in the southern sky are more in line with the obsessions of the Age of Exploration, and thus we see there the Compass, the Arabic Numeral, the Slightly Less Severely Defective Compass, the Edict of Nantes, and the Hilarious Project To Improve The Compass By Putting It Inside An Iron Ball. Modern astronomers have proposed redrawing the constellations to match the counties of Ohio, which would have the great advantage of simplifying nothing.

Sky charts show in convenient map form all the major fixed objects like the Moon, the clouds obscuring what the news people said was a much more visible comet than the last ten proved to be, and the transfer point for Grand Central Station. They are available in printed form which show what the sky was like in name-brand years such as 1950 or 2000. They can also be made by computer programs which contain enough settings to tell you what the sky looks like on Neith, the moon of Venus which does not actually exist.

To find something unfamiliar, start by looking at something you do know, like your building, and then look first in the direction of the ``right ascension'' and then to the ``declination'', unless those are the same thing, until you are completely lost. By starting carefully you will know that you're somewhere near your yard.

Although you do not need to make discoveries to be an amateur astronomer that's no reason to avoid them. Leslie Peltier, a renowned amateur astronomer, discovered the Peltier effect -- a way to produce cold using solid-state electronics -- was named for Jean Charles Athanase Peltier, who died 55 years before he was born. Anyone who's had a person die 55 years before his or her birth can hope for similar discoveries. I'm sure Walter would agree.

Trivia: From 23 May 1910 the Eiffel Tower's radio station transmitted timing pulses every 1.01 seconds. Source: Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, Peter Galison.

Currently Reading: We Reach The Moon, John Noble Wilford. A summer of 1969 publication of space history, so, I anticipate, rather exciting in not being so distant from the events.

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