230. The Night Sky

One year, I took a course about the night sky. I’d always been fascinated with the dazzling display up there every clear night, but I hadn’t taken any astronomy courses in college, because the course descriptions made them sound like advanced physics courses that had
little to do with the view. Instead, I later enrolled in a class at the Broadmoor Audubon Sanctuary, and learned about the stars and planets.
And then I started meeting with children and parents at night to look at the night sky and teach them what I’d learned. Most of them only knew about the Big Dipper, and maybe Orion, so even though I’d only taken one little course, I was a comparative expert. And it was a precious opportunity to see children and parents as equal partners in learning.
I told them that there were different colored stars and planets up there. Rigel (or is it Regulus?) is blue, Betelgeuse and Mars are red. I find those three the easiest to pick out for an introduction to star and planet color. The colors are not easy to see at first. To me, all the stars used to look white. I’ll bet many of you see them as white, too. But the colors really are there; it’s not just a mind game.
The constellations are human inventions, but they’ve lasted pretty long. They’re still based mostly on Greek and Roman mythology. If we wanted to, we could redo the whole system. We could honor modern heroes and heroines by creating new constellations. Businesses could get involved, using the sky as a giant billboard. I’m sure there are golden arches somewhere up there. I guess I’m glad we stick with the old myths.
I remember the first time I told children and parents that some of what they clearly saw might not be there at all, and none of it was where they saw it. Light takes time to travel. Here on earth, it doesn’t take long enough to make a big difference; when we see something, it doesn’t really matter that a fraction of a second has passed since the light we see left the thing we see. As far as we’re concerned we see things as they occur. It used feel to me as if my eyes sent out something so that I could see, not as if rays or particles were coming to my eyes.
But that’s not the way it’s explained now. (I almost wrote “That’s not the truth.” But what is truth?) When light leaves a star, it takes years for it to get to us. So if a star explodes or implodes, it takes years for us to get that information. And most of us are too busy fighting traffic, writing articles, or playing video games to even notice. Besides, the stars are far away, and their disappearance isn’t going to have dramatic effects on our lives here.
Some astronomers may have practical things in mind when they study stars. And our space program is far from being a pure quest for knowledge.
But the myriad of lights hanging on our ceiling are fascinating in their own right, and I’m glad I’m done with this article; it’s early morning, still dark outside, and I’m going to open my shade and see what the sky looks like. It’ll probably look pretty similar to the sky I saw when I was a child, and somehow, that’s comforting.

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