“Pairadise” and the Pleiades

Pairadise, Mark Ellis

If you’re like me and have been watching Venus and Jupiter dance in the night sky these past weeks, then this stunning photograph by Mark Ellis will certainly delight. It was taken on a beach in Maui, and the juxtaposition of that indigo sky with the almost otherworldly clouds and terrain makes this a truly incredible image. And look at how beautifully bright Venus is! Jupiter is slowly pulling away from Venus now, but the pair can still be seen in the night sky for a little while longer.

Despite how bright Venus is, I can’t stop looking at the Pleiades peeking out from behind the clouds. Since I was old enough to recognize that particular group of stars, I’ve always loved looking for them in the night sky. As a child of maybe eight or so, while at my family’s little horse ranch, I would spend hours laying on the grass looking up the stars, often focusing on just the “Seven Sisters,” imagining myriad stories of who these mysterious sisters were (I only knew then what the constellation was called, not the mythology behind it), and why they were shining so brightly in my sky.  Many years ago in my early twenties, I had the pleasure of spending some time with a Lakota medicine woman, Barrett Eagle Bear, and I remember being enraptured by her telling of the Lakota story of this particular constellation. The story of seven young girls who, over seven days, were taken up to the sky by an eagle. The eagle was defeated and the girls were returned to earth, but their spirits remained in the sky.

I often write about the sky in this blog, and it’s because it has a similar effect on me as do great books and beautiful art… it stirs both my emotions and my intellect. So I’ll keep looking up, as should all of you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.. our universe is a pretty amazing place.

Sunday Funnies #11

The latest strip from Calamities of Nature.

The Curiosity of Children

My spring break has officially began this week (one of the perks of being a teacher), and in celebration, I took my daughter to one of my favorite places in this city, the science museum and planetarium. Granted, this little building is a pretty sorry excuse for a science museum, most of it is horribly outdated (exhibits remain from when I was a child), but I didn’t think my three-year old daughter would mind.

This museum was very near my home when I was growing up, and it was my favorite weekend destination, which gratefully my grandparents were always more than happy take me. I would spend hours in the main gallery, getting my hands dirty with “science” with all their interactive exhibits, and then more hours in the planetarium, gazing up at the projected night sky, memorizing the locations of all the stars, planets, and constellations for the month.  The best part of spending my days there was that I would always leave feeling as if I understood the world around me just that much better. I would walk into the parking lot looking at everything with a slightly more critical and keen eye, and that feeling would carry me well into the week. And when the sun went down, the curiosity that was piqued in the planetarium would be given free rein as I looked into the night sky and was awed by the sheer enormity of it all.

Madison looking into a zoetrope.

So with all of that in mind, I took my daughter to spend the day at the same museum, which, as I mentioned above, hasn’t changed much in the past thirty years. She loved it. She hopped and ran from exhibit to exhibit, trying her hand at all of the hands-on exhibits, asking for explanations, her eyes brightening with understanding every time she “got it.” She was mesmerized by fluid dynamics, spent exceptionally long periods of time staring at close up images of our planets, and even built her own Lego solar-powered car. Watching her eyes widen with excitement when we walked into the main gallery and she took it all in was wonderful in and of itself, but seeing her curiosity and awe take flight really made it all worth while. Not to mention that seeing and experience everything in that little museum again through her eyes rekindled my sense of child-like wonder.

As we were walking out, her new orange dinosaur in hand, she told me that she wanted to return every day. That night she asked to take out the telescope, and although it was cloudy, we did get a good look at the moon. As she looked through the telescope and I looked at her, I realized just  how lucky I am to have a daughter who is so bright and so curious. It was a beautiful day and it made me think of what Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay “On Life,”

Let us recollect our sensations as children. What a distinct and intense apprehension had we of the world and of ourselves!

The Most Astounding Fact

Late last night, I received a link to this video from one of my former students, and as my daughter and I have been spending a great deal of time looking at the heavens through our telescope lately, it seemed perfectly appropriate and too good not to pass along.

In this short clip Neil deGrasse Tyson answers the question, “What is the most astounding fact that you can share with us about the Universe?” His answer reminds us that we a part of this magnificent and incredible universe… all of us. It’s the same message that Sagan had when he said that “we are star-stuff,” or when said that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. We are creatures of the cosmos and always hunger to know our origins, to understand our connection with the universe.”

When I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.

So as Jack Horkheimer used to say “keep looking up!” And when you do, feel big.

Madison Sees Venus

As I mentioned in a previous post, the sky has been amazing lately, and my daughter and I have definitely been taking advantage of it. We have spent a good part of nearly every night this week looking up.

This past Tuesday, as we drove home in the evening, my daughter was absolutely fascinated by the sky. She was thrilled at the thought that the planets and the moon were “following us home,” and wanting to take advantage of her curiosity, we took the telescope out as soon as we got home and pointed it right towards the incredibly bright Venus. Here is the photograph of my daughter seeing Venus for the first time. I has to be my favorite picture of her. I was carrying her so that she could reach the telescope and she was just about squirming out of my arms to get a better look.

Beside a Giant

Cassini seems to be taking the most breathtaking photographs lately. Here is another one of Saturn, this time with its enormous moon Titan. Just to get a little sense of scale, Titan is larger than the planet Mercury, and it would be a planet in its own right were it not for its location in Saturn’s orbit. Here, however, it seems so small next to the giant planet and the shadows of its rings. You can also just make out Prometheus… it’s the tiny speck above the rings on the far right.

So breathtakingly beautiful.

Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Beautiful Alignment

As you already know, I’m constantly looking up at the moon and stars. This past Friday night as I headed out to dinner with my daughter, the sky was especially stunning.  My daughter saw it first and pointed it out. Jupiter, Venus and our Moon were perfectly aligned, and the moon, an impossibly thin crescent, was illuminated by earthshine. Just beautiful.