My father and I have always enjoyed gazing at the night sky together. As a child, I would stand or lie next to him in some dew-filled meadow, trying to ignore the growing chill and the ache in my neck as he guided me from star to planet to constellation. I grew up assuming that all fathers have an encyclopedic knowledge of the stars. His grasp of the heavens still amazes me. Ask him where Jupiter is, at any time, anywhere, and he’ll say, “Oh, it’s right about there”, pointing down at his feet at some imaginary spot in the night sky on the other side of the Earth. Thus, I am fortunate to have a particularly good guide walking me through the heavens, from one pinpoint of light to the next.
These astronomical tours typically start with some well known star or constellation – Polaris, the Pole Star, or the easily spotted Big Dipper – and proceed from there using instructions that any treasure map-wielding pirate would be proud to call their own.
“See the last two stars in the handle of the Dipper? Follow them for, oh, about eight times the distance between them to that bright star. Then go half that distance to the left. That’s Leo. Now see the two stars in the head …”
During these tours, my father likes to use a flashlight to draw in the air. He’ll wave the beam around, lighting up scintillating dust particles as he points out the various constellations. These lights have evolved from the big, clunky camplights of the 70′s (remember those giant 6-volt lantern batteries?), to the ultra durable Mag-Lites popular in the 80s and 90s that could be focused for stronger beams, to his current tool, an extra-powerful pocket laser pointer he ordered off the web for just this purpose. Technically, I think he wrote it off as a business expense – a pointer to be used for the many presentations he gives and attends – but it places an uncomfortably bright spot on any screen you point it at, making it less than ideal in that regard. But for drawing a miles-long pencil beam in the night sky, it’s perfect. I do worry though that any intelligent life on the receiving end of that beam may lose an eye, and our little star here will forever be known to them as, “Mote Molestus”.
Sadly, only a small fraction of my dad’s knowledge has rubbed off on me. I still recognize a handful of the obvious sights: Venus, the Milky Way, the Big Dipper. Orion and the Pleides – obvious stuff that any amateur astronomer picks up in the first couple of stargazing sessions. I attribute much of my ignorance to the fact I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life in urban environments, where city lights and city life relegate the night sky to a rarely pondered role. But now, here in Bend, we regularly get lovely clear nights and I find myself again looking up, knowing there are names for all those pinpoints of light, but not quite remembering what they are.
Thus, I periodically get the urge to learn about the stars again. In a previous attempt, I purchased a book I remember from my childhood, The Night Sky, but connecting the little stick figure drawings in it to what lies in the actual heavens is tricky. The one presenting a grossly over-simplified version of bodies that are lost in the glorius confusion of the other. So in my latest attempt, I invested in a really good star chart and stargazing flashlight, and last night spent some time using them. I am embarrassed to admit that I’d never really figured out how to use a star chart before, but it is trivially easy once you get the knack and I had a delightfully productive evening. I can finally claim Canis Major (Orion’s Dog) for my own. I have known the Queen of Ethiopia, Cassiopia, for a while, but I now also know her king, Cepheus. Auriga, the Shepherd, is an elusive one, but I think I have him figured out. And I’ll be keeping an eye on Draco, the giant serpent circling Polaris, from now on. It seems harmless enough, but dragons are… well, you never know.
The biggest surprise of the evening came while I was slowly picking out the stars of Perseus. I try to really learn one constellation a night when stargazing, and had picked Perseus somewhat at random. I was having trouble identifying some of the stars, and so had fetched a pair of binoculars. It was with these, while scanning around the sky, that I found a bright disk-shaped smear. It was Comet Holmes/17p and I was delighted. Seeing a comet is always special, but this one a tad more so. My dad had emailed me about it a few days earlier, urging me to watch for it, and in typical inconsiderate son fashion, I’d more or less dismissed his letter. I was busy with, well, I don’t know what, but I’d forgotten about the comet. To find it by chance from among the 1000′s of other dots of light in the sky felt more than a little serendipitous. It was a pleasant reminder that my dad is still trying to teach me the stars. We’ll have to see if I get any better at listening.