By Bradley Harrington
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” — Isaac Newton, “Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton,” 1855 —
I’ve mentioned before that I was an astronomy freak when I was a kid — and, with a total solar eclipse heading our way on Aug. 21, I can’t help but want to share a few thoughts on those topics.
The solar eclipse of 1970, only a partial eclipse for me as I was viewing it from Detroit, Mich., was the first one I remember. I was so excited about it my Mom and Dad bought me one of those Sears 400x refractor telescopes for $75 that I could use for myself.
Well, that probably wasn’t the best gift to give me at 11 years old, as it gave me the perfect excuse to stay up late — and, whenever my parents wouldn’t let me, on clear nights, I’d wait until they went to bed and sneak out with that ‘scope anyway.
Trying to view the night sky from a well-lit subdivision off Eight Mile Road, however, didn’t do too much for me. As I got older and bolder, I learned how to nest that ‘scope between the handlebars of my old Schwinn and head for the hills north of Southfield where I could escape the town’s light beams.
One hill in particular, which I named “Weathertop” from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, was always my favorite, as there was a small upcrop at the crest of it to the south. That way, I could get a completely unobstructed view of the entire sky — and block out Southfield’s light rays while I was at it.
I guess, looking back on it now, that I spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours up on Weathertop. That ‘scope, while nothing spectacular, brought me visions of Jupiter’s moons; the clouds of Venus; the M33 Andromeda galaxy; the mountains and craters of our own Moon; the red deserts of Mars; and the Crab and Orion nebulas, just to name a few. I had long ago memorized all 88 of the constellations, even the ones in the South that I couldn’t see.
But my all-time favorite thing to gaze at was always the rings of Saturn — which, at the time, were tilted near maximum towards Earth and incredibly beautiful, always luminous and shimmering a bit in the circle of the lens.
I can’t even begin to describe the sense of excitement I felt whenever I was on that hill. My favorite constellations were the winter series, so I’d have to bundle up pretty good. But if got out there just after sunset, I could stay there until just before sunrise and that would give me nearly the whole sky to study, the “great ocean of truth” that “lay all undiscovered before me.”
And school, later on that morning? Who cared about that??
The thing that always struck me about the stars was that they were so steady. Sure, the rotating sky would spin them around me as the night wore on, but those gorgeous jewels on black velvet were immutable and unchanging.
Betelgeuse in Orion, Sirius in Canis Major, the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux … They all became my friends over the years. No matter what turmoil was taking place in my life or on Planet Earth, I could always gaze up at night and find them, beacons of predictability and rationality in a Universe otherwise awash in craziness.
Imagine, if you will, a blazing nuclear furnace a million miles wide, roiling and seething with immense energies — and so far away from us that we see it as nothing more than an insignificant point of light.
Yet these are the same points of light we humans were seeing when we started planting crops tens of thousands of years ago; these are the same points of light that Thomas Jefferson could see while he was writing the Declaration of Independence. Talk about perspective!
To this day, although I haven’t pursued active sky-viewing as a hobby in decades, I can STILL look up at night and see all of my friends, twinkling at me merrily, always reminding me of the greater world that lies outside of all our points of reference. I wave at them sometimes, and I still remember all their names.
This year, if and as you view our solar eclipse, you’ll see them too: Once Luna’s disc obscures the sun, my friends will leap out of the heavens to wave to you, too … And maybe that will be all you need to push you into saying “Hi!” to them at other times as well.
Bradley Harrington is a computer technician and a writer who lives in Cheyenne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.