The Starry Room: Naked Eye Astronomy in the Intimate Universeby Fred Schaaf
Rather than a how-to guide or step-by-step observing manual, this collection of essays offers Schaaf's uniquely philosophical, scientific and poetic reflections on the art and practice of watching the sky. Like the original, which was published in 1988, this edition should make for excellent cloudy night reading for both beginning and heavily-invested stargazers.… See more details below
Rather than a how-to guide or step-by-step observing manual, this collection of essays offers Schaaf's uniquely philosophical, scientific and poetic reflections on the art and practice of watching the sky. Like the original, which was published in 1988, this edition should make for excellent cloudy night reading for both beginning and heavily-invested stargazers. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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THE STARRY ROOM
NAKED EYE ASTRONOMY IN THE INTIMATE UNIVERSE
By Fred Schaaf, Doug Myers
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Fred Schaaf
All rights reserved.
The Secrets of Seeing
IT WAS THE SOLE DARK HOUR between moonset and morning twilight on October 26, 1985, and I was out at my parents' home in the country to observe Halley's Comet. About ten seconds after I had first looked up, I had seen one of the Orionid meteors, flaming streaks caused by tiny pieces of dust which had been released by Halley's to glow in its tail dozens or hundreds of its once-in-a-lifetime visits earlier. Orionid meteors are visible every year around this time in October, but to see a few with their parent comet in the sky near the part of Orion they fly out of was a chance seldom available in all of history. Too bad that Halley was not yet visible to the naked eye—though beautiful and intense-centered in my telescope.
I needed no other rare experience to make that quiet, dark hour memorable, but one of my reveries was broken suddenly when I heard a noise. For a moment, then another, I did not recognize it, for I had never heard it so loud and close in the still of the night. Then there was no doubt. Geese! It was the sound of Canada geese. This group was weeks later than most on the autumn migration. And they were close. North of me down the wooded road a bit the neighbor's dog barked. The honking of the geese was louder, sharper, resounding, filling everything. And yet (to my amazement) the rest of the world kept sleeping. Only I and the dog, it seemed, were awake in all the world. I could not help but hope. On this night of magical Halley sights, might I be granted a further vision?
All of my mind and body doubted. In twenty-five years of watching the night sky I had looked for geese crossing the stars dozens of times when I heard their lonely, heart-stirring call on high in the night. A few glimpses of them near the moon, exciting but indistinct, always short of what I had dreamed of, was the best that I ever got. That was all. So now my mind and body doubted. But my body still scrambled, my head turned, I moved out from under trees to where something told me the right section of the constellations would be visible. And lifted to the starry heavens my eye....
Nothing is so heroic as the eye. Not just the perfect or idealized eye in something like a Renaissance painting or Greek statue, but yours or mine, in something like its proper use. The truth of this is staring us from the face, yet how few people really know it! The catch of course, is that "proper use"—learning how to put your average yet potentially miraculous vision to it.
There are secrets to seeing. Some are simple, some not so simple. Some of them are physiological—and these I discuss much later in this book (in Chapter 11, "The Powers of Vision"). But most of the secrets are more a matter of knowledge and what we may call attitude or spirit.
One thing else is certain, too: there is no better place to learn the secrets of seeing than in the sky. Astronomy, of all sciences or nature studies, is the one which always has and always will depend most heavily on the eye. Even in our recent decades of handled moon rocks, "felt" Martian winds and quakes (and "tasted" Martian soil), "heard" radio waves from natural sources (really "seen" in a range beyond that of visible light), we recognize most of the universe as too vast and too far to ever be reached or studied with any of the senses but vision. This is true even assuming that we someday build faster-than-light spaceships and visit the stars—the universe is too big (and, in each place, too small) to be touched everywhere firsthand, though maybe not writ too large and small to be read with limited yet still wonderful comprehension. Even those great augmenters of the eye's powers, the telescope and photographic film, now joined impressively by electronic light detectors, even those are ultimately just the accoutrements of human vision. They do what they do for the eye.
But astronomy's already veteran, foreseeably continuing and naturally intimate relationship with the eye is not the best reason for you or me to learn the secrets of seeing in the heavens. The best reason is: if the eye is a hero—or can become one when we give it the right kind of chance—then the heavens are the eye's widest and often grandest field in which to adventure. Every night will bring to sight another wonder. And not even 25 years—or 250—will exhaust the new ones ... like a line of geese among the stars.
Our initial set of secrets are those involving knowledge about the wheres and whens for looking.
There are times and situations to avoid if you want to observe specific kinds of sky sights. Amateur astronomers soon learn that a night of bright moon is not good for most kinds of astronomical observing because the night's other celestial objects are so much fainter, so overwhelmed by the flood of lunar radiance. There are a few possible exceptions. If you are learning the brightest stars and constellations, some experts suggest that the patterns are easier to pick out in a moon-washed or city (but not very big city) sky than when they are accompanied by a confusing welter of several thousand more faint stars in a dark, moonless country sky. Personally, I cannot help but feel that the struggle to find these stars and patterns amid so rich a profusion of fainter stars is more than made up for by the glorious experience of that profusion (not all bewilderment is bad!) and by the greater natural splendor of the bright stars and constellations seen as they should be—in a dark heavens. Be all that as it may, telescopic observations of bright planets do not necessarily suffer from moonlight, man-light, or bright twilight. As a matter of fact, the surface brightness (actually cloud brightness) of a planet like Venus is best seen when it does not contrast too strongly—a dazzle in the dark—with the background sky. Likewise, you may see more detail on Jupiter or Mars when the sky around them is not very dark.
Other than these and a few other exceptions, the moon—lovely though it be—is something to avoid if you want to observe other celestial objects well. Indeed, though the fact comes as a big surprise to the novice, a brightly moonlit night is not in many respects the best time for observing even the moon itself!
What is the problem with observing the moon with binoculars or telescope anytime around full moon? The problem is not the moon's great total brightness then; it is the angle at which sunlight is striking lunar features—most perpendicularly to the surface and thus with hardly any shadows to outline craters, mountain ranges, valleys, and other topography. A few features can be seen properly only around full moon—for instance, the spectacular "rays" which radiate in surface streaks of ejected dust hundreds of miles long (and longer) from some of the moon's younger, fresher craters. The rays have no real depth or height and so cast no shadows. For best views of all those lunar features which do cast shadows, the time to look is when they are near the moon's "terminator." The terminator is the line separating light and dark, day from night, on the moon—the line along which astronauts on the moon would be witnessing sunrise or sunset. It is where shadows are longest. Near the terminator you can often catch sight of a lunar peak's summit shining as a bright speck surrounded by darkness (a tiny detached piece of moonlight!) or of a crater looking like a ring of light exquisitely chiseled around a hole of profound darkness. Devoted lunar observers want to see this fair satellite's face in all its lights and guises, of course, but beginners can get some of the easiest and most spectacular views by looking at the right time and place. The moon around first quarter (conveniently high in the early-evening sky) is especially good to look at, with not yet so much straight-on sunlight and the terminator lying across particularly rough highlands and rugged numerous craters. With a telescope, the sunrise's advance over this dramatic lunar landscape can be appreciated not just from night to night but even from hour to hour.
Even though having skies free from bright moon or man-made "light pollution" is not quite always important, you might think that the clearness of the sky is. But for certain kinds of astronomical observing, the darkest and clearest nights can nevertheless be poor! These are the kinds of observing in which extreme steadiness and sharpness of image are crucial. After a cold front has roared through your area the atmosphere may be at its most transparent, but you may not see details on planets or split the close-together members of a double star system with a telescope. Why not? Because the atmosphere you are looking through in such a weather situation is likely to be turbulent. The effect of the atmosphere's turbulence on the sharpness and steadiness of images is what astronomers call the "seeing"—good "seeing" if the atmosphere is steady and calm, bad "seeing" if it is especially turbulent. The turbulence need not be windiness anywhere near ground level—bad "seeing" is more often and largely a result of irregular air flow at higher altitudes in the atmosphere above you. A rough naked-eye guide to the "seeing" is provided by how strongly stars twinkle: the more twinkling (though it is pretty in itself), the worse the "seeing." Since starlight must pass through a longer pathway of air down low in the sky, stars always twinkle a lot down near the horizon. Strong twinkling of a star high in the sky is an indication of very bad "seeing." The night may be startlingly clear, perfect for glimpsing faint meteors and splendor of constellations with the naked eye or delicate, dim galaxies and faint star clusters with the telescope (though not precise detail in them)—but you will probably not split close double stars or see much more than wavering glimpses of bands on otherwise featureless Jupiter's globe if the "seeing" is bad. The best all-around nights for observing are those with a combination of both good transparency and good "seeing."
Is there anything favorable to be said for cloudy nights if you want to observe astronomical objects? Your only compensation may be a lovely one: with the right kind of clouds, you may be treated to the astronomical-meteorological combination of the moon (or sun) producing in those clouds disks of color called cloud-coronas. Or, with other clouds, you may see the luminous and sometimes colorful arcs, circles, and spots of the various halo phenomena. The most famous halo is the huge "ring around the moon."
The best time to look at a celestial object, or even to look for a celestial object otherwise not seen, can depend on more than surrounding conditions of clear air or still atmosphere or moonless sky. There are many entirely astronomical factors to consider: when the object you want to see is closest, or otherwise best presented in space to our Earth.
Want to see a "shooting star," a meteor? With patient sky watching on a clear, dark night you will see a few. But there are certain nights, the same predictable nights, each year when your number of meteors can be many times better. Those are the nights of the annual "meteor showers," when Earth is passing through a greater concentration than usual of these rocky objects in space. Usually after midnight (it varies according to the specific shower), you may see as many as several scores of meteors per hour on these astronomical holidays.
The best time to see most of the planets is when they are near opposition (opposite the sun, thus rising at sunset, visible all night long, and also closest and consequently brightest and biggest). These oppositions occur at somewhat different dates each year and must be learned from almanacs or the like if you cannot distinguish the planets from one another (and from bright stars) and thus notice when the planet is beginning to rise near sunset.
A few planets have special conditions of visibility which can help you locate and identify them even if you do not have an astronomy reference work at hand. Imagine a world which sometimes outshines the brightest star and is often closer to us than any other planet but which has been seen (even unknowingly) by only a small percentage of people. It remains unseen even by many amateur sky watchers, and it was never observed (legend says) by the famous astronomer Copernicus! Such a planet exists, and its name is Mercury.
The explanation for Mercury's elusiveness is its closeness to the sun in space and therefore also to the sun in our sky. Mercury whizzes around its small orbit in just eighty-eight days, and the periods when it moves out to fairly good visibility on either side of the sun (above the west horizon after sunset or above the east horizon before sunrise) are only a few weeks long—at most. There are further complicating factors, but for viewers in mid-northern latitudes (like the United States, Canada, and Europe), the angle of Mercury above the sun at dusk is steepest within a month or so of the start of spring. Thus even if you had no other information, you would know that a bright point of light low in the west about thirty to sixty minutes after sunset for a week or two sometime between February and May is probably Mercury. (The only other object you might occasionally confuse for Mercury in such a situation is Venus—usually much brighter, brighter by far than any other point of light in the heavens.) And if you did not have at least this simple information? You might never notice this fascinating fellow world of Earth, this often orange spark of beauty which I frequently watch to the call of returning whippoorwills in spring.
Some sky phenomena are far more spectacular than Mercury, sometimes covering vast regions of the heavens, but they can be even more elusive because of their time of occurrence and their brevity. The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, is frequent only above fairly high north latitudes, but wherever you are you increase your chances of seeing it if you keep track of solar activity—this you can do in part by watching sunspots (with proper, safe observing techniques) and being aware of the peaks of solar activity which occur at roughly eleven-year intervals (the next maximum is likely to occur in the early 1990s). Aurorae are most common near maximum solar activity with some of the greatest displays tending to occur a year or two after the peak. The best time of night for the Northern Lights is also important to know. It is usually the middle of the night. People who hear on the news of a potential great display often give up and go to bed too early: a half-hour after they lower their bedroom shades, the previously quiet sky is alive with spectacular, moving arrays of colored patterns.
Another example of awesome sky-spanning beauty which so many people needlessly miss is the rainbow. Rainbows are ephemeral, and your chances of glimpsing one are greatly increased if you know where to watch for their appearance: always in the direction opposite the sun. There are other important pointers for would-be rainbow watchers (the rainbow can appear even if it is not raining right at your location; the rainbow is below the horizon when the sun is more than about halfway up the sky). If you know where a rainbow will appear (if it is going to appear), you can make sure that your view of that sky-region is unobstructed and keep checking right there at frequent intervals as the shower passes and the sunshine strengthens. Adding even a few more rainbows to your life is invaluable.
One of the most remarkable cases of a sky spectacle "hidden in plain sight" is the halo phenomenon called the circumzenithal arc. As the name indicates, it forms an arc centered on the zenith (the overhead point of the sky). When the sun gets fairly low and the proper ice crystals exist in the proper clouds, this amazing curve of all the rainbow colors can appear. The trouble is that it appears high above the sun, higher than most people ever look. Again and again—a number of times each year—I have had the strange experience of seeing people who would marvel at a rainbow walking about unknowingly while just above their heads in the sky hung an arc of colors virtually as beautiful. It is shaped like a smile, a smile of nature amused at our unawareness, or a diadem of beauty sitting upon the head of the sky and also crowning our ignorance of its presence or even existence. The observer who sees it feels privileged and proud that he or she is not one of the unknowing throng walking by, but such a person should not be overly proud. Even those of us who know to look high above the sun for it whenever the sun is low and wispy clouds feather that part of the sky, even we forget to look or are sitting inside most of the times it appears. More important, what similar crown or adornment or astonishment of beauty sits over our head or behind our back or beside our feet while we look elsewhere unknowing? By gazing only to the sky we may miss the rarest and loveliest wildflower blooming right in our path.
Excerpted from THE STARRY ROOM by Fred Schaaf, Doug Myers. Copyright © 2002 Fred Schaaf. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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