Wednesday, December 29, 2010
In The Dark About Astronomers
Amateur astronomers are a little bit nuts. I hope they will forgive the generalization, because they’re also very nice people who will bite their fingers off to show you something in the sky so fuzzy and dim that you might be able to say "I see it!"…..or if you don ‘t see it, they’ll spend half an hour tweaking their telescope to make sure that you see it….and then you still don’t see it….but to escape from their clutches you will say "Oh yes, my god, there it IS!".
Mt. Pinos, in the Los Padres National Forest, rises to 8900 feet. It has a smooth road ending in a flat parking lot at the very summit. It is a magnet for astronomers.
It’s a place where glaciers slide through mountain creases. Ponderosa pine trees twist their way down the centuries of their enigmatic lives.
At favorable times of the year Mt. Pinos’ summit fills with astronomers and their gear. This has been happening for at least fifty years.
Among this tribe of quasi-lunatics are people who know where to find Galaxy M51 with a ten second tweak of a powerful telescope. It might take me ten minutes, if I’m very lucky. The conversation at star parties is an utterly foreign language, but it’s not really difficult once you know the alphabet. “M” is for Messier, Charles Messier who, in 1788, compiled a catalogue of one hundred and ten prominent astronomical objects. His purpose in doing so was to warn astronomers who were hunting comets that these objects were NOT comets. The telescopes of that era were not like modern precision instruments. Everything that wasn’t a star looked like a fuzzy blob….maybe a comet, maybe a nebula, a star cluster, a galaxy. Astronomers like Sir Edmund Halley used Messier’s list to check off these false leads. Were it not for Messier’s list, Halley’s Comet could be anybody’s comet. Sir Edmund might have wasted months or even years searching for his periodic comet. Sir William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus, might be gazing upon the Crab Nebula which is M1 on Messier’s list of not-comets. He needn’t waste several nights seeing if the object moved in a cometary orbit. He could move on to the next fuzzy object.
Messier was doing an invaluable service to his community of scientists. In his time, discovering a comet could win a knighthood and a lifetime pension from the King. The only way to discover a comet, then and now, is to scan the sky systematically, starting at Point A and sweeping a telescope slowly and smoothly across the heavens. If something dim, fuzzy and boasting some bit of a tail is sighted, the coordinates are duly noted and then the object is observed on subsequent nights. If the object has moved, and keeps moving in a certain type of orbit, it is indeed a comet.
Messier’s list is so adept that it has survived more than two centuries as the major catalog of things to look for in the sky. When astronomers talk about “M” this and “M” that, they are referring to the Messier Catalog. Nowadays if you discover a comet, you are mentioned in astronomy magazines and the comet will bear your name
There’s no knighthood. No stipend. No royalties.
The Messier Catalog keeps most astronomers busy with their maps and scopes for a lifetime. The hard-core astronomers move on to the next scientific list of celestial objects. This is the NGC, or New General Catalogue. It contains a mere eight thousand celestial tourist sites. Keeping one’s ears perked in the dark of a star party, one might be invited to step over to a fourteen foot ladder leaning against a mechanism resembling a thirty inch battleship gun.
“Want to see NGC 2678?” Wow, yeah! Then you might hear a phrase repeated hundreds of times a night at any self-respecting star party: “I don’t see anything.”
Then there’s a low mumbling, a pause. “OH! THERE IT IS! WOW!”
After the NGC the catalogues get huge, with the ICC, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDS), and the numbers go into the millions and the gazillions.
Of course you can buy one of these gazillions of stars as your very own from the International Star Registry. This is a business, not an official scientific organization. I could open my own International Blades of Grass Registry, but blades of grass lack the romantic allure of stars. A clever entrepreneur hit upon a perfect marketing scheme. Advertising is his only real expense. The inventory of products is endless. There’s no regulation, no copyright infringement and the warehouse is the universe. I must admit to a grudging admiration for the man who came up with the idea of selling Certificates of Ownership for stars. It’s a shameless scam, but it’s legal.
Amateur astronomers are highly refined technophiles who are completely immersed in an alternate lifestyle. Most of this lifestyle happens in the small hours of the night at remote dark locations. It takes a special sort of madness to seek out such discomfort for the sake of a clear look at the sky.
First, there’s the drive. Cities and astronomy don’t mix. It takes a minimum of fifty miles distance from urban lighting to allow some of the sky’s details to emerge. Considering the amount of sprawl now prevalent on the North American continent, escaping light pollution is a major undertaking. There are other obstacles, such as dust, mist, atmospheric particles and weather that obstruct the pursuit of astronomy. By default, there are certain special places where astronomers tend to gather. Mt. Pinos has been one of these places for decades. Sadly, it’s losing out to the expanding light-domes of Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. Many California astronomers now head towards the High Sierras or the Mojave Desert.
Astronomers love gear; lots of gear. The gear is weighty, complicated, clumsy and difficult to operate. The parking lot at Mt. Pinos on a moonless Saturday night looks as if a class of MIT graduates are preparing to repel an alien invasion. Telescope tubes point skyward in all directions. Red LEDs are the only illumination. Red light does not compromise night vision. If someone turns on a white light, there will emerge from the parking lot an ominous snarl, sinister enough to turn big Hell’s Angels into cringing mice. Little red lights zig zag across the asphalt. Blinking and beeping, night-vision computer screens show sky maps and tracking data. If I were less militant, I would pity the innocent lost tourists who drive into the Mt. Pinos parking lot with headlights ablaze. The hapless tourists are destroying dozens of precision exposures, possibly months of a photographer's hard work. I’ve seen a mob of blinded astronomers chasing a family of lost campers out of the lot, waving their red flashlights in rage, screaming “Lights out! Lights out! Lights out!”
There are different categories of astronomers. There are hard-core “gearhead” astronomers, many of whom are involved with astro-photography. Astronomers are as competitive as any athletes. The photographers compete to get better, cleaner, deeper photos. They vie to capture the most distant and obscure galaxies. The gear has gotten so good that amateur work can rival the most advanced images taken by any observatory.
Astronomers of the “I can find anything in the sky” group are a lot of fun at star parties. These are the people who are locating the most obscure nebulae and galaxies and rattling off their names. “There, my fellows, is the Stephens Quintet, sometimes known as ‘Hickson’s Compact Group 92’a cluster of five galaxies with signs of gravitational interaction” Twelve feet away at the next telescope a diminutive sixty five year old woman named Carolyn commands a queue at her giant scope.
“If you avert your eyes slightly to use the more sensitive rod receptors,” she instructs, “ you might get a glimpse of the famous Horsehead Nebula, or B33, which is contrasted by the presence of IC 434 in the same field of view”. The competition spreads across the site. Numbers fly, arcane tidbits of astrophysical knowledge are imparted.
The consumer part of astronomy has shown stunning evolution. In ten years the development of what are called “Go To” telescopes has achieved perfect refinement. It is possible to walk into a store, buy a telescope for under fifteen hundred dollars, set it up that night and align it by pushing a few buttons. No knowledge of astronomy is required. The Go To scope will whirr, its arms will move as if driven by a ghost, and it will locate any of forty thousand targets in the night sky without human assistance. It’s spooky. “Real” astronomers regard it as an invention of the devil.
I enjoy lightweight simple astronomy. I take nothing but my eyes or a set of binoculars, and sit up all night in a trance, partaking of the insane beauty of the night sky at a place where it has not been spoiled by civilization. I revert to the awe of my ancestors at the nameless and timeless mystery of night, stars, comets, planets, the immense panoply of our human heritage, up THERE, no admission fee, UP THERE!
It breaks my heart to think of the numbers of people who will live their lives without seeing the Milky Way or a really dark night sky in all its majesty.
My quest to see unpolluted skies stimulated my interest in Recreational Vehicles. That interest drastically changed my lifestyle. For the last seven years I have lived full time with my wife and animals in a 38 foot motor coach. It turned out to be a good idea. Living in an RV combines the comforts of civilization with the mobility to chase the ultimate in night sky beauty.
Our first RV was an ancient rust-bucket that we called Yertle. We were RV rookies. We made dangerous mistakes but we also had great adventures.
My wife enjoys astronomy but she has a different motive for sustaining the RV life. She learned in her early forties that her biological mother was an Apache from the Chiricahua Band. This information was a shock. It ignited in Fox a desire to explore her ethnic roots in the Southwest. It was natural for both of us to be drawn to the great landscapes around Moab, Utah.
Our first trip was a foolish tent camping journey in the middle of July. Our second trip was in November, by way of Yertle's ancient but soulful wheels.
We crossed California, cliimbing and descending the Sierras. As we headed south and east we entered the numbing salt flats of The Great Basin.. Then, almost as if a switch had been thrown, we saw the landscape change at a town called Delta, Utah. It turned green and placid, and as we drove onward, gigantic clouds a hundred miles long and fifty miles wide covered the land, a huge flat layer of wet atmosphere riding along on a wind that swept southward. This particular cloud was ribbed, as if were a fillet of sole, laid out on the dinner plate of the evening sky. An hour of this and we started seeing a few buttes off in the distance and a mountain range to the east. The scent of The Southwest began to fill our hearts. Our journey was maturing, we were getting to our destination. Soon we would be back among the colossi of South-eastern Utah, in Indian Country, heading towards the Four Corners.
Our eagerness overcame our judgment, and I continued to drive through the afternoon and into evening. It was getting dark but I felt exhilarated. I was feeling Yertle under my hands, her steering wheel fixed and solid, her engine joyously pounding, her suspension shaking up our insides
It got dark. Having been this way before, I knew that Highway Fifty jogs up to the north, along Interstate Fifteen, for about ten miles, and then debouches at a truck stop town called Scipio, for its final gasp before it expires in Salina, Utah.
Scipio was a town before it was a truck stop. Now the glare of huge Exxon and Chevron tower-signs light up the modest farm community. We had stayed at the Day’s Inn on our previous journey. Now we conveniently thumbed our nose at motels, as we had our home surrounding us, on our back, turtle-wise.
The road narrows and trucks whistle along from the oncoming lane, headlights blazing. God, here I was again, violating one of RV living's primary rules, DON”T DRIVE AT NIGHT. Don't drive when fatigue sits behind excitement like a lurking thief. Don't drive a big bulky vehicle when a rabbit looks like a rhinoceros. Don't drive after many hours behind a strength-sapping wheel when judgment becomes so impaired that eighty miles per hour feels like twenty and the RV is jumping around like a grasshopper on meth.
There was nothing out there, no campgrounds or tourist stops. I just kept my eyes peeled for a location, anything, a pull-out, a Flying J, a place to stop and sleep.
It was pitch -absolutely-black out there, and I saw a sign in my headlights. It said “Something something Campground”. The word Campground nailed my attention, and less than half a mile further down the road, a brown State Park sign caught my eye. I pulled onto the road, stopped, looked around, conferred with Fox. “Let’s check it out,” we decided, so I hit the gas and started driving down this road into darkness, into nowhere, remote in Utah, a few miles from the tiny town of Salina.
I became anxious. I didn’t know where we were, what lay ahead, whether the road was passable. I was gambling that we’d find someplace to spend the night.
We drove for several miles, but it felt like fifteen or twenty and nothing appeared. I had a fantasy of breaking down way in this hinterland, and needing to bicycle out for help in the morning. Yes, I could do it, but a twenty mile ride to wave at passing cars for help wasn’t on my agenda for the next morning. As I searched for anything resembling a flat spot onto which we could pull, I saw a break in a fence, and a nice broad level patch. I took it.
Maneuvering over a few humps, potholes and rocks, I found a landing spot, secured ourselves and turned off the engine, killed the lights.
Silence. Stars overhead, violently bright, bright like pinholes before a raging torch, bright like pulsating nerves, like phosphorescent closed-eye fatigue that throws geometric mandalas onto my retinal surface. In other words, I was so exhausted and stimulated that I was hallucinating. Whenever I closed my eyes, I would see a psychedelic whirling of patterns, woom woom woom! and I knew I could not go another inch. Still, every time we stop for the night, there are things that must be done. The furnace lit, the vents opened, little stuff, and when I opened the door to go outside, I was as if struck in the head.
The Sky! The Sky! Ohmygawd the Sky! This was like nothing I had seen before, so dark and so clear that I could barely recognize the constellations. They were so full of stars that the familiar patterns became obscured. Oh, yes, there’s Cassiopeia! I recognize the familiar ‘W’ of the Queen’s Chair. All this other stuff, all these stars in between, amazing. The Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way, my favorite piece of sky, was setting in the West. This is a section dense with stars, dotted with nebulae, clusters, visible in binoculars, palpable to the naked eye. I gaped at the more subtle bits overhead, the misting fleece around Perseus and His neighbors, and Orion, there in the South, standing upright with the nebula in his sword, here visible to the naked eye. There were the Pleiades and the Hyades,. The sky was impossibly rich.
The darkness and silence were stunning. I had no clue where we were. Fox joined me and we stood, leaning against Yertle’s warm hood. The only noises were the little ticking sounds that the vehicle made as she cooled off. That, and the hooting of owls. I walked around the camper and immediately put my foot into a cow pie.
“Just leave it out here, booboo,” Fox indicated my shoe. “We’re too tired, let’s go to sleep.” It was all of nine thirty. So we went to bed. I read a book until my nerves stopped twanging like guitar strings, and then I drifted into a sleep in which I dreamed of alien skies above an other-worldly landscape.
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