Summertime Stargazing

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the July 5, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259I love the summer. Longer daylight hours means we can do a lot more. It also means, after a good day’s work, we can still spend some relaxing time with our family and neighbors.

Sitting on the porch gently taking in the sights and sounds of nature and our community, we savor the twilight of the day. The last lick of sunlight long since set, we slowly mellow with the sky. Our light conversation goes as smoothly as the transition from dusk to dark.

It is this time of day I enjoy the best. Surrounded by close comrades and all the chores done, I can now look heavenward. For some reason, I still get a kick out of finding the first star of the night. It usually appears when the sky has yet to relinquish its blue color.

Soon, as the evening draws to darkness, many more twinkling points of light come forth. Quickly, the patterns of the summer constellations emerge. Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila loom above, the brightest stars of each forming the famous Summer Triangle.

On the southern horizon, Sagittarius eternally chases Scorpio, whose red heart coincides with the crimson star Antares. Antares literally means “The Rival of Mars [Ares],” so named because the vividness of its color challenges that of the Angry Red Planet.

When the night has lost almost all its light, we can detect a faint milky white stream cutting through the Summer Triangle and virtually bisecting the sky. When we see this, we do not gaze upon a vague high altitude cloud. No, this light represents the millions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy. With so many stars, the light has fused together in the band which stretches across the sky.

Why has mankind been so enthralled with the objects in the night sky? Over the centuries, the stuff of astronomy has provided everything from a means to navigate to the perfect romantic setting. Yet from the beginning of history, astronomy brought to our species a more important quality.

Plato states in Laws that our philosophical beginning necessarily start with “the kind of nature which is said to exist in the stars.” Indeed, the whole concept of observation came about when Aristotle attempted to explain his physics through what he saw in the heavens. Astronomy soon became a method of measuring not only distances, but also an approach for measuring our own position within the grand scheme.

As our understanding of the universe expanded, man’s role within it began to diminish. We, as a species, have evolved from the egotistical idea that the Earth represents the center of the entire universe to the notion that even the Milky Way – the galaxy which contains our Sun – is simply an anonymous gathering of stars in a seemingly limitless universe.

Kant summarizes this when he claims astronomy “annihilates my importance as an animal creature, but elevates my worth as an intelligent creature.” In today’s easier-to-understand vernacular, Kant would say, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is we are just a dot in the universe. The good news is we are smart enough to know the bad news.”

Yet, when I gaze into the summer sky, I am not burdened by the philosophical dialogue of the classics. I am comforted by the soft warmth of the air which blankets me, the happy nearness of good friends and family and the peaceful tranquility of being a part – no matter how big or how small – of the same mechanism that has powered the ancient stars above.

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For those interested in learning more about discovering the secrets of the stars – how they got there and how to find them, Mr. Carosa will be teaching the “Summertime Stargazing” course at the Strasenburgh Planetarium starting Tuesday night, July 10. The class will discuss simple telescope operations, observing techniques and the stories behind the constellations. It will include sessions in the Planetarium’s Star Theatre and the telescopes in the Planetarium’s observatory, weather permitting. For more information on the five-week class, call the Gannett School of Science and Man at 271-4320 ext. 501.

[Author’s note: Since this class occurred in 1990, those not possessing a time machine might find it easier to venture to AstronomyTop100.com to partake in the on-line class.]

Next Week #66: A Graduation Song (originally published on June 28, 1990)
Next Week #68: Milestones (originally published on July 12, 1990)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]

Comments

  1. Chris Carosa says:

    Author’s Comment: It goes without saying my Astronomy-themed Commentaries rank among my favorite, but this particular piece represents perhaps my best work. I’ve used it as a basis for launching my International Year of Astronomy outreach project AstronomyTop100.com in 2009. A cross between Fox’s American Idol and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the project attracted participation from all across the globe, including at least five out of the seven continents. If you want to see the results, go to the link at the end of the article.

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