Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dark Skies

     I woke up at three o’clock the other morning and leaned out of my open window far enough to rotate my body and stare straight up. There was no moon and the sky was freckled with stars. The Milky Way, which is just an edge-on view of our home galaxy, was a river of light, with Orion hoisting his sword on one side and the twins Castor and Pollux striding across the other. When I was growing up in Richmond, I could see the moon and, on a really good night, I could see the Big Dipper and North Star. I had no idea that there were so many other stars in the sky until I moved to the mountains. The skies here are so perfect for star gazing that when my brother comes to visit, he says he likes to look for UFO’s. Apparently the bright lights of the city would hide an alien invasion. So far he hasn’t seen any but I think that’s just his macho way of disguising his pure delight in studying such a jewel-encrusted firmament. Realtors even refer to it in ads designed to sell property around here. “Come enjoy the dark skies!” they enthuse. ( dark sky map )   
      My father has installed lights on the woodshed so that we can feed the dogs at night, but sometimes, I prefer a starlight stroll. I walk through starshine and starshadow across the dim back forty, straining my neck as I try to find constellations that I can identify. When I was a camper in middle school, my camp director, John Ensign, used to have us lie face up in a field. Using the beam of a powerful flashlight, he would point out the obvious Big and Small Dippers, and then show us the other stars that make up the Big Bear. He would trace the line from the end of the Small Dipper to the North Star and we would lie in the field with dew dotting our cheeks until we saw all the other stars in the sky rotate around its fixed point.
     When I began to teach science I learned that light from our nearest star, the sun, takes eight light-minutes to reach us, while light from the North Star, Polaris, takes 430 light years to travel to my eyes. My students always gasp when I tell them that if the sun were to die, we wouldn’t know it on earth for at least eight minutes. That’s when the last photons would finish their trip through space to reach us. Even more amazing is the fact that if the North Star were to go dark, its light would still be visible for over four hundred years here on earth. Perhaps the star I was studying in that dewy field was already a fading memory and that twinkle just a part of the light stream still beaming its way across the cosmos. I love stars for their beauty but also for the size of the ideas they bring to my imagination. That and they are a really good diversion from a menopausal hot flash on a cold winter night.

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